Henri Regnault - Salome

by Claire Deuticke


Slightly mischievous, self-confident, almost challenging, the sitter looks at the viewer with her dark eyes under her wild head of hair. The dark eyes and the black hair contrast with her pale skin, the cheeks and lips have a slight redness. The right shoulder and the décolleté are bare, the pale skin appears pure, almost porcelain-like. The sitter wears a shining golden robe that rests loosely on her left shoulder and envelops her body in flowing movements, it reaches down to the floor. The lower part of the robe is transparent, allowing the outline of her thighs to be glimpsed. Her bare ankles and feet are gracefully bent, she is wearing black and red slippers, but she has slipped out of them. The right arm holds the depicted confidently, almost haughtily supported in the hip. On her right upper arm she wears a bracelet with the motif of two intertwined snakes. The naked shoulder is slightly tilted forward, the head bent. The posture gives her a certain eroticism and serenity. The lady dressed in gold sits on a chest elaborately decorated with gold ornaments. On her lap rests a large golden tray, on which a sword in an equally gold-decorated scabbard is emblazoned. With her left hand, the mischievous looking lady grasps the sword, the grip seems firm and determined. The background is adorned with a large, golden shining cloth, which takes up the entire picture space and bathes the image in a warm, bright light. The floor of the depicted room is filled by a red and blue knotted carpet, which is partially covered by an animal fur in leopard pattern. The objects depicted all appear to be very precious and elaborately made, and the entire image is evidence of very rich furnishings. The textiles in particular lend the work an intense plasticity.

The revealing, self-confident image of the woman, as well as the sword firmly grasped on the tray, indicate that the sitter is Salome - a historical woman from antiquity, known today especially for her eroticism and cruelty. The Roman-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus described her as the daughter of Herodias in his work "Antiquitates ludaicae" from 93 or 94 CE. In later tradition this name was associated with the story of the murder of "John the Baptist" told in the Gospels, although there only the "daughter of Herodias" is mentioned, the name "Salome" is never mentioned. According to the biblical narrative in the New Testament (MT 14, 1 - 12 and Mk 6, 14 - 29), Herodias desired the death of John the Baptist because he criticized the marriage to her brother-in-law Herod Antipas. On the occasion of a birthday celebration of Herod, the daughter of Herodias, who according to the ancient writing of Joseph Flavius is Salome, performed a dance with which she enraptured those present to such an extent that Herod swore to her: "Whatever you ask, I will give it to you, even if it were half of my kingdom." (Mark 6:17 - 29). The girl asked her mother what she should desire, and she whispered her own desire. She should ask for John's head. Herod Antipas could not refuse this wish. He had John beheaded and the head brought on a bowl to the dancer, Salome. Especially in the second half of the 19th century, Salome was considered a Christian - mythological female figure, which was portrayed in art, literature and music numerous times - usually as a model of pure eroticism and ideal beauty but also incarnation of female cruelty. She is often equated with the concept of the "femme fatale", a seductive type of woman, endowed with magical-demonic traits.


Henri Regnault also endowed "his Salome" with the classical ideals of beauty as well as the permissiveness and mischievousness of a "femme fatale" who calmly and haughtily watches over the fate of a man. The eroticism and beauty of the sitter is underlined in Regnault's painting by the sumptuously furnished scenery, including the expensive textiles and the bright golden colors. In addition to the role of the "femme fatale," the sitter corresponds to another stereotype: that of the so-called "belle juive" - a man-seducing, erotic, vicious Jewess, as the incarnation of cruelty, which is often equated with the "femme fatale," but which refers exclusively to Jewish women and can be found in various works, especially in 19th century French painting. Although probably not intended by the creators of the works, it can be said that this type of depiction of Jewish women encouraged the spread of an anti-Semitic stereotype of the man-pleasing, cruel Jewess that still circulates in various networks today. Especially in the case of works such as this one, it is therefore necessary to subject them to critical scrutiny and to mark them, for example, with a reference to the anti-Semitic stereotype of the "belle juive".


Henri Regnault - Salome

Oil on canvas, 1870, 160 x 102.9 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York