German artist Wilhelm Trübner’s depiction of Salome shows the New Testament character brazenly nude, holding the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
When this painting by an admittedly-minor artist was recently rotated into the permanent collection gallery #11, it was hung alongside masterpieces by Monet and Caillebotte. I was stunned that my eyes left Boating on the Yerres to look instead at this girl, Salome, painted in vibrant colors with dramatic light and shadow on the model’s skin.
I was also stunned that after a childhood of of attending Sunday school, I needed to turn to Wikipedia to learn more about Salome.
The Biblical story explains that Salome, daughter of Herodias and therefore stepdaughter of King Herod Antipas, danced to entertain and seduce the ruler of Galilee at his 1st century AD birthday celebration. Her dance survives in our cultural imagination as the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” during which seven veils are sequentially and tauntingly removed. You can watch femme fatale Rita Hayworth performing the dance in her 1953 film Salomé.
To show his appreciation, the mesmerized King promised young Salome the fulfillment of any wish:
And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. (King James Bible. Mark 6:22)
The story continues that, after consulting with her mother, Salome asked for the head of prisoner John the Baptist on a platter.
And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother. (King James Bible. Mark 6: 27-28)
In Christianity, the beheading of John the Baptist is a common theme and a poignant precursor to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
In the language of art, the character of Salome has come to represent female seduction.
To compare other artworks with what exists in the Museum collection, I made my first art research stop with the online database of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I searched for “Salome”… and wowza! I was soon giggling at image after image of “wanton” females dancing over the head of John the Baptist.
The artworks range from a 14th-century Italian altarpiece to a Dutch Art Nouveau style work on paper–each more beautiful than the next. You can see at right the Met’s Henri Regnault painting of Salome, a painting considered in the late 19th century to be the masterpiece of contemporary art, showing the legendary veils falling off an exposed shoulder. The model holds a confident, almost self-satisfied stare.
The feminist in me was a bit horrified, realizing that I was again seeing the role of women reduced to the extremes of either evil temptress or virginal Madonna. But looking at image after image, I started to see that the women (even if “wanton,” with their exposed ankles, ample cleavage and killer dance moves) were full of life.
These representations of Salome show women who were strong, rosy, and gorgeous. Most were shown in contrast to a severed head that represented death. You can clearly see below, in the Met’s Renaissance Italian painting by Andrea Solario, the contrasting colors of the skin tones. She is alabaster and rose, he is green. Salome’s lips are pink, John’s are gray. This is a contrast of beauty and death.
Turning my attention back to the Museum’s Trübner painting (shown below), I started seeing Salome’s brazen nudity as a sign of power. Her legs are strong and she holds her head high. Unlike the eyes of John the Baptist, her eyes are wide and seeing.
But I also realized that this version of Salome was not typical to what I’d observed in my Met collection database survey. First, there are no seven veils. And now, with my new eyes, I understood something I read in the Museum’s object file for this painting.
In 2000, the Milwaukee Art Museum lent Salome to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City for the exhibition 1900: Art at the Crossroads. Speaking to a reporter from the New York Times, Guggenheim curator Robert Rosenblum said of this painting:
About 20 years ago, I was at the Milwaukee Art Museum and saw this version of Salome. Usually, Salome is veiled and exotic and an evil temptress. But here’s this wacky study of a naked girl who happens to be holding a platter with a decapitated head. She looks like she’s from a nudist colony. As the staff and I were installing the show, we would refer to this painting as “Where’s the Picnic Table?” (New York Times, June 25, 2000)
She looks like she’s from a nudist colony?
Yes, we’ll call that confidence. The painting does leave us with the impression that Salome (or at least the model) is comfortable in the outdoor light, and that the artist used ample sunshine. In fact, Wilhelm Trübner did follow the “open air” practices influenced by the late 19th-century Impressionist painters.
You can visit Wilhelm Trübner’s 1898 Salomé on view in Gallery #11. It joined that gallery recently because two Museum artworks moved for inclusion in the fall’s exhibition Impressionism: Masterworks on Paper. Claude Monet’s 1903 Waterloo Bridge, Sunlight Effect and Camille Pissarro’s 1882 Path and Hill, Pontoise (both oil paintings) will be shown as counterpart to the 110 drawings, watercolors and pastels (works on paper) in this major Baker/Rowland exhibition of works by the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. In their place, Museum curator Laurie Winters had the opportunity to bring out Salome from storage, along with Camille Pissarro’s ca. 1885 Sunset at Rouen.
Come in to see her in person! You’ll be shocked at the vibrancy of the color, like the almost-neon orange used on her knees. You even can study how her collarbone is a series of blue, green, white, and red geometric (cubist?) shapes.
Mel Buchanan was the Assistant Curator of 20th-century Design. Mel’s curatorial responsibility includes interpreting, displaying, and building the Museum’s collection of craft, design, and decorative objects.