Gustave Moreau had a successful Salon in 1876. I have already considered two of the paintings which he showed there, Saint Sebastian and the Angel and Hercules and the Lernean Hydra. The other two were an oil and a watercolour work based on the story of Salome and the execution of Saint John the Baptist. These generated a lot of critical comment, and are still among his best-known paintings.
The narrative is biblical, and straightforward. The unnamed daughter (subsequently identified as Salome) of Herodias performed a dance at a birthday feast thrown by King Herod. The dance so pleased Herod that he offered her anything that she wanted, up to half his kingdom. She asked not for riches, but for the head of Saint John the Baptist, the earthly messenger sent to announce the birth and ministry of Jesus Christ. Reluctantly, Herod agreed, John was beheaded in prison, and his head brought to her on a plate; the dancer gave the head to her mother.
This has been a very popular story for religious paintings, and by far the most common scene involves John’s head being brought on a plate, or variations around that. Moreau was clearly interested in other parts of the story, and particularly in Salome herself.
Moreau had probably started work on a painting of Salome during the Franco-Prussian War, and this is one of several sketches which he made exploring ways in which he could depict its femme fatale. Although these drawings differ slightly, he was quickly concentrating on an image of her which would show her dancing, with her left arm stretched out and up, but which would still seem quite static, as opposed to an action position.
One possible explanation of Moreau’s apparently sudden interest in Salome was the story – probably mythical – of a woman Communard known as the pétroleuse, who seemingly took delight in setting buildings alight. That would suggest that it was not until the summer of 1871 that he started work on his paintings of Salome.
Salome Dancing before Herod (1871) is one of his earlier paintings developing the theme, focussing not on the head – which is nowhere to be seen – but on Salome, with King Herod shown on his throne in the background. The tattoo-like forms on the body of Salome are intended to be developed into her intricate jewellery and other adornments, and show the rich cross-cultural symbols which he was intending to incorporate.
Another theme which Moreau considered was that of the dancer being present when John was actually beheaded, as seen in Salome at the Prison (c 1873-76). With its figures crammed into the lower left quadrant of its canvas, it is a radical composition, with John kneeling and the executioner’s sword about to behead him at the far left, and a very pensive Salome in the foreground.
Salome Carrying the Head of John the Baptist on a Platter (1876) is a much more traditional scene, which may have led Moreau on to the motif of his Apparition. Notable in these paintings is that Salome is shown not as an evil or lustful woman, but almost as the heroine of the story.
As Cooke establishes, Moreau must also have decided to base his King Herod on the contemporary painting of Pope Formosus and Stephen VI (1870) by the great history painter Jean-Paul Laurens. The full story is told in this article, but it involves the trial of the corpse of Pope Formosus, shown dressed up in his papal vestments.
The culmination of Moreau’s quest for the right scene to show the story of Salome the dancer is this extraordinary oil painting, which was one of the two shown at the 1876 Salon.
The cadaveric King Herod sits on this throne whilst Salome is almost static on her points, and pointing towards the right. The executioner stands at the foot of the throne, and a couple of other women (including, perhaps, Salome’s mother) are at the left. Salome holds a lotus flower in her right hand, and other flowers are strewn on the floor. John’s head is nowhere to be seen, so we must presume that the moment selected by Moreau is when Salome chooses to receive that as her reward.
The rest of the painting consists of an unprecedented fusion of images, icons, and objects drawn from a diverse range of cultures. Detailed examination has shown these to be associated with the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the Alhambra in Granada, the Great Mosque of Cordoba, and several mediaeval cathedrals. Motifs have been identified from Etruscan, Roman, Egyptian, Indian, and Chinese art and culture.
But Moreau was not content to show only that scene from the story. The other painting was to consider Salome with the head of John the Baptist as an apparition, and is now represented in three different versions.
The Apparition (1875) in the Musée National Gustave-Moreau is one of Moreau’s earliest attempts to express this. It takes the central part of Salome and adds the floating, severed head of John. Salome has now been transformed into the provocative, under-dressed femme fatale shown by other artists. King Herod’s throne has been moved to the left of the painting, and he now looks in the direction of the apparition.
This watercolour painting of The Apparition (c 1876), now in the Musée d’Orsay, was that shown at the Salon, although its colours are far weaker now than when it was first exhibited. The cadaveric King Herod sit on his throne, overseeing the scene from the left edge. Herodias, presumably, sits by his feet, and a musician (for Salome’s dance) is also shown further back. At the right edge is the executioner, John’s blood still on his sword.
Salome is now nearly nude, her body decorated by an abundance of strategically-placed jewellery and adornments. She points at the apparition with her left hand, trying to stare it out, her face as blank as everyone else’s. She stands on her points, but there is no sign of movement. The floor is not just strewn with flowers, but is now stained with the dripping blood from the severed head.
Facial expressions are not theatrical as might have been expected in the work of a more conventional history painter of the day.
This slightly later oil version of The Apparition (1876-77), now in the Fogg Museum, gives a better idea of the original effect of Moreau’s watercolour, although the panther has moved across to replace the musician, and the background is quite different.
Moreau had not painted Salome and The Apparition as a pair. Their compositions are individual, and mutually conflicting in the details of the palace, the position of Herod’s throne, and much more. Salome is one of the most iconographically-rich paintings ever made, and it is not surprising that some critics found it phantasmagoric. The Apparition is dominated by the same eye-to-eye contact that made Moreau’s Oedipus and the Sphinx so compelling, but here it is between a notorious dancer and the severed head of the holiest man after Christ himself.
I consider these two paintings to be major works in the Christian canon, and the 1876 Salon to be the watershed in Moreau’s art.
You may also find it fascinating to compare these paintings of Salome with those by Lovis Corinth, from 1899 and 1900, which I will show tomorrow.
Cooke P (2014) Gustave Moreau, History Painting, Spirituality and Symbolism, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 20433 9.
Mathieu P-L (1998, 2010) Gustave Moreau, the Assembler of Dreams, PocheCouleur. ISBN 978 2 867 70194 8.