Watts, George Frederic 1817-1904
In 1843, Watts won a prize in the competition to design murals in the new Houses of Parliament. He used the money to visit Italy, where he studied the works of the old masters. This pursuit conditioned Watts to think in terms of allegory and exalted idealism. He returned to England in 1847 and was soon recognised as a major painter in aesthetic circles, before achieving popular fame in 1880. Thereafter, he became a revered figure in the English art establishment. His style was influenced by Etty, the Elgin marbles, Titian and Michelangelo.
According to the notes by Mrs Watts (Watts Gallery archives), Salome's action of holding up the ring of Herod indicates that responsibility for the death of St John the Baptist is not hers but the King's.
Watts' thoughts were almost invariably "pressed in such allegorical terms as Love and Death. Oscar Wilde reviewed the first version of this work (Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester) in the exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877. In his notice, he described the work as:
He compares Watts' work with Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. Continuing in the same vein two years later, Wilde considered Watts the 'most powerful of all our living English artists'.
The inspiration for this painting dates from Watts' travels around the Greek islands in 1856. For Wilde, as for Watts, early visits to Greece and a love of Greek poetry were to be of great inspirational importance. When rusticated for truancy for being late back from a trip to Greece, Wilde claimed later that he was sent down 'for being the first undergraduate to visit Olympia'. In the 'Critic as Artist' (1890), Wilde wrote of his strong conviction that Aristotle, unlike Plato, offered a theory of art 'from the purely aesthetic point of view' and a sense of beauty realised through the passions of pity and awe'. Wilde was to give his own highly personal spin to the whole concept of Hellenism, writing, in a characteristic aphorism: 'To be Greek one should have no clothes: to be mediaeval one should have no body: to be modern one should have no soul.'
During the evolution of the composition of the painting, Watts made wax models after the pose of Phidias's Theseus from the Parthenon pediment, which was the artist's major source of inspiration for the central reclining figure in the composition.
Lillie Langtry sat for Watts on many occasions, and left amusing accounts of her visits to his studio. On one visit, he decided to depict her in 'a quaint little poke bonnet from which he ruthlessly tore the opulent ostrich feather which I regarded at the time as the glory of my head gear'.