Providing the theme for some 15 finished paintings and watercolours, as well as countless drawings, the subject of Salome provided a deeper vein of inspiration than any other in Gustave Moreau’s oeuvre, and is the one with which he was most associated in his own lifetime. Herod’s muse embodied the idea of the femme fatale, a concept which fascinated Moreau and which he also addressed in his depictions of figures such as Helen of Troy, Delilah and Lady Macbeth.
The present work concludes a narrative which begins with a painting exhibited by Moreau at the Salon of 1876, Salome Dancing Before Herod (fig. 1). A tour de force of Symbolist art, the painting caused a sensation; combining exotic mysticism with a decor not far removed from the most sumptuous Orientalist paintings, the nominal subject is almost wholly abstracted from its original Christian or historical context. The profusion of ornamental details, borrowed eclectically from Egyptian, Persian, Indian, Roman, and other cultures, inspired Moreau's Symbolist contemporaries, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé and the novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, but only bemused the Naturalist critic and writer, Emile Zola, who commented: "Gustave Moreau devotes himself to Symbolism. He paints pictures which often remain enigmas, looks for archaic and primitive forms, takes Mantegna as his example, but then lends huge importance to the slightest pictorial accessory. His talent consists in taking subjects treated by other painters and representing them in a different way. He paints these reveries - but not the simple and benevolent reveries such as we all have, sinners that we are - but subtle, complicated, enigmatic reveries, the sense of which one cannot immediately unravel."
Moreau further developed his subject in The Apparition, set immediately after St. John's execution, which keeps the same compositional structure and palatial setting, but shows Salome recoiling from the saint's head, dripping blood and levitating in front of her. In the final instalment represented by the present watercolour, Salome is depicted in the Babylonian setting of the palace gardens, her act and purpose accomplished, an immortal monument to the femme fatale. Standing in front of a carved panther, a traditional symbol of cruelty, with her hair bejewelled, her flowing robe spattered with blood, she is fixed in contrapposto on a marble pedestal, like a statue of the antique. Recoiling from the head of St. John, whose eyes – far from dead – stare open in an expression which combines accusation and shock, she wears an expression that is deliberately enigmatic, possibly a mixture of fatalism and remorse, while her serene posture, exotic costume, and the dream-like setting provide a powerful contrast to the horror of the immediate context, resulting in an image which is powerfully unsettling. As Douglas Druick writes:
“ To endow this ‘religious enchantress’ with the requisite sibylline demeanour and air of mystery, the artist conceived of her quite differently from the temptresses that populated the annual Salon, who incarnated a fantasy of sensuality as carnality, all curves, breasts and buttocks. Moreau’s Salome, by contrast, encased in a costume that is a kind of châsse or reliquary, is hieratically rigid; she is cast in an impossible pose that, rather than evoking the eroticism of the dance of the veils, embodies the static quality Moreau referred to as ‘that motionless and disquieting aspect of fixity’.” (Exh. cat., Chicago, Gustave Moreau - Between Epic and Dream, 1999, p. 36).
Moreau was noted as the most gifted watercolourist of his generation, with an acute sense of bright colour, whose works in the medium combined the characteristics of illustrated manuscripts, miniatures and devotional paintings, resulting in works of powerful psychological intensity which, in less accomplished hands, could tend towards sentimentality. The intensity of the present work derives from the artist’s use of rich colours, in particular the trademark lapis-lazuli blue of the column, the strongly vertical composition, and the compressed space into which Salome is tightly framed. Her richly ornamented costume and hair echo the floral surroundings and also, more sinisterly, the head of St. John, whose hairs finds a mirror in the colours and flow of Salome’s robe, visually reinforcing their intertwined destinies.
In a variant of this work, also in watercolour (fig 2), Moreau strips away any of the moral ambiguity suggested here by Salome's downcast features, to portray a more explicit vision of feminine evil. Richly attired in a blood red flowing dress, elaborate crown and pectoral, she stares defiantly out of the picture plane, the head of St. John gaping up at her in fear rather than reproach, his blood staining her hands.
The present composition is in many respects a variation of another subject also famously treated by Moreau, Orpheus, in which a beautiful Thracian maiden reverently beholds the head and lyre of the dead poet (fig. 3). In both pictures Moreau sets the central figure in a classical pose, against a vertiginous rocky background, but he modulates the composition to completely different effect. In Orpheus, the mood is melancholic, the maiden’s contemplative gaze quite different to that of Salomé’s, while Orpheus’ pale, cadaverous head, which appears to float on the lyre, has none of the gore or pained expressiveness which characterise that of St. John.
Notwithstanding these differences, both pictures hint at the duality of woman – simultaneously representing the forces of destruction and of new life, for while the maiden may glance reverently at Orpheus, so too the Maenads, incensed by the poet’s indifference to them, were responsible for savaging him to death.