From as early as the Italian Renaissance, few topics were as consistently successful as that of the beheaded Saint-John the Baptist. It was not until the end of the 19th century and under the influence of Symbolism (Oscar Wilde wrote his Salomé in 1893 and Strauss' opera was created in Dresden in 1905), that the reproductions of this subject became most numerous, including innovations in photography.
Rodin appropriated the head from his large Saint-Jean Baptiste prêchant (plaster, 1880) and transformed it into a sublimely beautiful depiction of the Saint's decapitated head, of which there are two versions in disco. The first version was integrated into the superior part of Les Portes de l'Enfer, and the head, seen frontally, imparts a more expressionist reading. In the second version - the present work - the head is placed on its side, and in spite of the graphic open mouth, offers a more spiritualized expression. The second version is undoubtedly the more successful of the two.
Eight marble versions of the present work are known today, ranging from a largely unfinished version found formerly in the collection of Léon Bourgeois, Minister of Beaux-Arts in the 1890s (now Musée Garinet, Chalons-sur-Marne - gift from Dr Auguste Bourgeois, 1940), to very accomplished carvings of which the Lhermitte version is one of the best examples. Other versions can be found in the Soumaya Museum, Mexico, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (formerly in the collection of the Queen of Belgium) and in the Kasser Foundation, Montclair (USA).
Rodin and his friend Léon Lhermitte trained at the Ecole Imperiale de Dessin under drawing master Henri Lecoq de Boisbaudran. The two men shared a bond of friendship and membership of the group 'Les Pris de Rhum', a word play on the 'Le Prix de Rome', whose members included many of those refused by the Académie de Rome and barred from their award ceremony held annually. On the first Monday of every month, in addition to imbibing plenty of alcohol, they exchanged ideas, models' adresses and client referrals.
In a letter dated 18 June 1893, Lhermitte warmly thanked Rodin for his gift, the present marble: 'Mon cher Rodin, Nous avons, vous devez le comprendre, le plus vif désir, de possèder le plus tôt possible votre chef d'oeuvre - cette superbe et émouvante tête de saint-Jean Baptiste'. He went on, asking for the sculptor's advice regarding its display on a column (Archives, Musée Rodin, Paris).
In 1896, at Rodin's request, Lhermitte agreed to lend this work to an exhibition at the renowned Galerie Bing in Paris. It was at this time that Rodin made a plaster cast of the Lhermitte marble and later used it to cast several bronze proofs from it, one of which was purchased by the French government for the Musée du Luxembourg in 1906.