Salome was the daughter of Herodias by her first husband, Herod Philip, and was subsequently the stepdaughter of her uncle Herod Antipas, tetrach of Israel, whom her mother later married. Saint John the Baptist publicly rebuked Herod for marrying his brother's wife and in consequence was imprisoned. Shortly afterwards Herod held a banquet, at which, enamoured of his stepdaughter, he asked her to dance. Such was Salome's performance that he promised her whatever she asked, 'unto the half of my kingdom'. Herodias, to take her revenge on the Baptist, told her daughter to ask for his head on a dish. Herod, though distressed, kept his word.
Salome became the subject of a play by Oscar Wilde, written in French in 1893, and thereafter became a byword for decadence. Aubrey Beardsley produced ten licentious illustrations for the English edition of 1894, translated by Wilde's lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, but the licenser of plays refused to sanction a performance. Richard Strauss used the play as a basis for the libretto of his opera of the same name, first performed in Paris in 1896, but the play was not to be performed in London, at the Savoy Theatre, until October 1931.
It was in the heady atmosphere of Paris at the turn of the century that Armfield encountered the works that were to influence the subject of this watercolour, for he went there to study in 1902. Born the son of Quaker parents in Hampshire, he was greatly encouraged by them in his artistic career, and initially studied in Birimingham under Arthur Gaskin, Henry Payne, and Joseph Southall. Their influence can strongly be discerned in his work, and it was with Norman Wilkinson, another member of the Birmingham group, that he first shared a studio in Paris, enrolling at the Acadmie de la Grande Chaumire.
It has been suggested that this watercolour dates from circa 1903, one of the artist's most fecund and successful periods, his painting Faustine, inspired by the poet Swinburne, being bought by the Luxembourg Gallery in 1904. Certainly in Paris he was able to absorb a host of continental influences: hints of the costume designs of Leonard Bakst, who designed for Diaghilev's Ballet Russes can be seen in this work, and in the tunic of the Assyrian can be glimpsed traces of the recurring patterns of Gustav Klimt and other artists of the Austrian Jugendstil.
Indeed, judging from the artist's Witt file, this is one of his most arresting and successful compositions. Armfield returned to England in 1905, and held one man exhibitions at Robert Ross's Carfax Gallery in 1908 and 1912, and exhibited subsequently at the Leicester Galleries and elsewhere. In 1909 he married the writer Constance Smedley, and thereafter worked closely with her until her death in 1941. Armfield was not only a painter, but was also a prolific illustrtor and a versatile decorative artist who was also deeply involved in theatre, music, teaching and journalism; his Manual of Tempera Painting, published in 1930, was dedicated to his teacher, Joseph Southall. He was also a tireless researcher into occult religions, and was passionately interested in the formal and philosophical basis of art. Neglected for many years after the Second World War, he lived to see a revival of interest in his work, notably an exhibition, Homage to Maxwell Armfield at the Fine Art Society in 1970, before his death at the age of ninety-one in 1972.