PUVIS DE CHAVANNES, Pierre-Cécile
(b. 1824, Lyon, d. 1898, Paris)
The Beheading of St John the Baptistc. 1869
Oil on canvas, 240 x 316 cm
National Gallery, London
The beheading of Saint John the Baptist is one of the staple subjects of Christian art. The story's folk version, however, in which a femme fatale has the saint killed because of her desire for him, had from the sixteenth century informed erotic pictures depicting Salome carrying the Baptist's severed head, often the artist's self portrait. This theme was revived in 1841 by Heinrich Heine in his exotic poem Atta Troll, and quickly became fashionable in all the arts.
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist exemplifies Puvis's ideals and methods. While the picture is almost certainly unfinished, its lean paint surface is characteristic of the artist. During his travels he had fallen in love with 'Italian Primitive' frescoes, and it was their flat, matt surfaces that he tried to imitate.
Puvis de Chavannes's composition is derived from church frescoes. Bodies - like the Moor's muscular back - are distorted to appear parallel to the picture surface, or at right angles to it in strict profile. Perspective is suppressed, and space behind the fig tree is patterned by its branches into two-dimensional shapes.