According to St Matthew's Gospel, Chapter 14, King Herod lusted after Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, and was denounced for his lechery by John the Baptist. On the King's birthday, Salome, Herodias's daughter, danced before him so seductively that he promised to give her anything she asked for. She claimed the Baptist's head, and the Saint was executed forthwith.
The subject had frequently been treated in Western art, and was a favourite with artists of the Symbolist period. Among others, it was attempted by Gustave Moreau, Puvis de Chavannes, Arnold Bocklin, Lovis Corinth, Edvard Munch, Gustav Klimt and G.F.Watts. Nor were writers and composers less inspired. Oscar Wilde's play, published in 1894 with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, is only the most famous of several treatments of the story in contemporary literature. Richard Strauss's opera was premiered in Dresden in 1905.
The present drawing is an elaborate coloured composition study for a version of the subject in tempera on canvas that Southall exhibited at the New Gallery, London, in 1906. The finished work is illustrated in The Pictures of 1906 (Pall Mall Magazine Extra), May 1906, p. 120. While it was in progress in 1905, it was the subject of paid demonstrations of the tempera technique that Southall gave to fellow artists and students at the Birmingham School of Art; the class was arranged by Henry Payne, who was on the staff, and Arthur Gaskin, Mary Newill and Margaret Gere were also present. The picture failed to sell when it was shown at the New Gallery, but when it was included in Southall's successful exhibition at the Galeries Georges Petit in Paris in 1910, it was bought by an American collector. It seems to have remained in America until it was sold by Sotheby's in New York on 12 February 1997, lot 79.
A full-scale cartoon for the painting, dated 1905, is in the Birmingham Art Gallery. It was lent in the Last Romantics exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery, London, in 1989, no.74 (illustrated in the catalogue).
The drawing is a brilliant example of Southall's flat and decorative style, profoundly influenced by his involvement with the Arts and Crafts and his study of the early Italian masters. Many of the details, such as Salome's fluttering drapery and the richly-embroidered dress of King Herod, are also old-masterish in origin. The cat in the lower left corner is a very characteristic touch that was to be developed in the cartoon and finished picture, where two cats appear instead of one. Southall and his wife were devoted to cats, and they often appear in his work. They were in effect surrogate children to the couple, who deliberately remained childless on the grounds that they were first cousins.