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This article is taken from
100 Best Paintings in London

Text by Geoffrey Smith


Arcadian Dreams / Symbolist Visions


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Pierre Puvis de Chavannes: The Beheading of St John the Baptist – c1869

London, National Gallery

St John the Baptist had denounced Herod for his incestuous marriage and not unnaturally Herodias, Herod’s wife, had been displeased. When Salome, her daughter by her first marriage later danced in front of Herod, he was so entranced by her that he promised her anything she wanted. Prompted by her mother, Salome famously asked for the Baptist’s head on a plate and Herod, true to his word, ordered John’s summary decapitation.

We are witness here to the very last second of the life of St John. The executioner’s sword is poised at the point from which it will depart for its swift terminal journey; the executioner’s body is packed with kinetic power, flexed to impart maximum velocity to the blade — enough energy to make the coming stroke the only one necessary to do the job. Soon, very soon, the Baptist’s head will be rolling on the stone-flagged floor. An impassive Salome (whose features are said to resemble the artist’s life long partner) looks on with academic interest, her dish ready to receive the saintly head.

Puvis was famous in the late nineteenth century for his huge decorative murals and oversize canvases which combined simplicity of form and colour with monumental scale. His admiration for Piero della Francesca and the art of the early Italian Renaissance led him to use flat expanses of colour in emulation of fresco and a great many of his compositions present us with an Arcadian paradise. This picture shows no idyll but the sparse covering of matt paint, the suppression of perspective, and concentration of the action along the picture plain is pure Puvis. (This painting is probably unfinished — a smaller version now hanging in the Barber Institute in Birmingham was exhibited at the Salon of 1870).

He was, of course, painting at the same time as the Impressionists and it would be difficult to think of a contemporary artist who produced work less in tune with the outdoor immediacy of much Impressionist output. However, it is of course wrong to think of the various groups and individuals who participated in the rich artistic life of late nineteenth-century Paris as being in some way hermetically sealed against what was happening around them. Puvis’s art was hugely influential and was greatly admired by most of the Impressionists and especially by the next generation of painters such as Seurat, Signac, Gauguin, Picasso and Matisse, the latter giving expression to his debt to Puvis in such ground-breaking paintings as Luxe, Calme et Volupté. His fame spread beyond France, bringing him a commission to produce frescoes for the Public Library in the American city of Boston.

Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London

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Contemporary Works

1868 Édouard ManetThe Execution of the Emperor Maximilian, London, National Gallery

1869 Edgar DegasThe Orchestra of the Paris Opera, Paris, Musée d’Orsay

1870 John Everett MillaisThe Boyhood of Raleigh, London, Tate Britain


Further Paintings of Interest

I Lock the Door Upon Myself

Fernand Khnopff

La Belle Angèle

Paul Gauguin

Island of the Dead

Arnold Böcklin