Herod, ruler of Galilee, promised his stepdaughter Salome anything she desired if she danced for him; prompted by her mother, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. The story of the beheading, with its mixture of religion, violence and eroticism, had been depicted many times in art, not least by Caravaggio and Rembrandt.
Puvis de Chavannes painted two versions of it. This is the second, which he worked on over many years but left unfinished at his death. The haunting and enigmatic scene is posed as if on a stage. The artist paints realistic figures but places them in a carefully composed but artificial composition; each is isolated in their own private world. The Baptist contemplates the cross in his final seconds, his thoughts on Christ and the salvation to come; the executioner starts his sword-sweep with balletic precision and concentration; Salome and Herod look on, their expressions reserved and curious. It is a scene of high drama but painted as a moment of the utmost stillness.
John the Baptist was both the cousin of Jesus and the man who foretold his coming. He was executed on the orders of Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee, who had become besotted with his stepdaughter Salome and offered her whatever she wanted if she danced for him. Prompted by her mother Herodias, who loathed John because he had denounced her, Salome asked for the Baptist’s head.
The episode had fascinated various writers and artists in the late nineteenth century, among them Gustave Flaubert, Oscar Wilde, Richard Strauss and Gustave Moreau. Puvis de Chavannes was one of the first to be mesmerised by the subject. In 1869 he started work on two versions of the Beheading: he exhibited one, a smaller painting now in the Barber Institute in Birmingham, at the Paris Salon of 1870. He worked on the second, the National Gallery’s version, over a number of years but never exhibited it in public and it was left unfinished at his death.
X-ray analysis shows that the second painting started off as simply a larger version of the first composition, with three figures – John the Baptist, Salome and the executioner – and the Baptist looking straight out of the painting at the viewer. Puvis de Chavannes then added the figure of Herod cloaked in red and the weeping serving girl in the background; he moved the tree off-centre so that the painting wasn’t so stiff and symmetrical; he reworked the figure of Salome; and, most importantly, gave the Baptist a reed cross to hold and turned his head towards it. Now, rather than contemplating the viewer in his last moments, the Baptist contemplates the future death and salvation of Christ which his own martyrdom prefigures.
The critics had not been kind to the first version of the painting (one calling it ‘grotesque’) so perhaps the artist experimented with the composition to make it more acceptable. It remains a strange work: it is partly Realist in the depiction of the figures, partly Symbolist in its otherworldliness, partly Neoclassical in the careful placing and outlining of the main characters. The enclosed courtyard gives the sense of a theatre stage and the poses of the figures are stagey and artificial. The horizontal and vertical grid that structures the picture is rigid; space is unnatural with the players in this scene disposed as if in a frieze, while the swing of the executioner’s sword will have to cut through the tree first before it gets to John’s neck. The figures display no emotion at this most dramatic and fatal moment but are suspended in a moment of eerie stillness.
The picture also plays to the nineteenth century’s fascination with the Orient as a strange, exotic, decadent and dangerous place. Puvis de Chavannes is said to have based Salome’s features on those of the Princess Cantacuzène, a Romanian princess and painter’s model with whom he was having an affair and was later to marry. If so, it gives her depiction as Salome, fingers on her cheek and chin in a gesture of cold curiosity as she watches the Baptist’s death, an added layer of meaning. If the age was in thrall to the erotic idea of the femme fatale, the princess was Puvis de Chavannes’s own personal dangerous woman. Herod appears to be based on the novelist Anatole France but he also bears a resemblance to Napoleon III, then Emperor of France – a neat if politically insensitive stand-in for Herod.
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