Aubrey Beardsley's Illustrations to Oscar Wilde's "Salomé" (1894). A comparison of Beardsley's illustrations to two earlier paintings of the same subject

Essay, 2015

7 Pages, Grade: 1,70


“For Aubrey: for the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is and can see the invisible dance. Oscar” (Fletcher 90)

In his letter Oscar Wilde confirms an aspect that is highly praised by critics. As “one of the most successful collaborations of poet and illustrator” (Tydeman 115) Wilde’s sym­bolist play Salomé (1894) would certainly not be the same without Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations on the English version.

The following essay will be about one of the most significant scenes in Salomé: the dance of the seven veils. Firstly, there will be an examination of Beardsley’s illustration “The Stomach Dance” (1894). Subsequently, two earlier paintings of the same subject, by Benozzo Gozzoli and Gustave Moreau, will be introduced and compared to Beards­ley’s representation.

“The Stomach Dance” (1894) is one of Beardsley’s illustrations to the play and shows Salome’s dance. King Herod has previously promised the princess to grand her any wish if she would dance for him. (Salome 38f)

Salome is standing on a black ground, which is divided horizontally from the plane white background. We might go further and interpret it as the moon, for it is one of the outstanding leitmotivs in the play. Salome is predominating the picture’s right side. In the foreground of the bottom left corner a grotesque figure is playing an instru­ment. Concerning the use of colour, it is remarkable that Beardsley works with black and white only. Hereby he creates great contrasts and simultaneously sole focuses on define lines and filled areas. The lack of shadows leads to the conclusion that no source of light can be defined. We are also missing any third dimension, in other words Beards­ley creates “a world [...] without any reference to any objective reality”. (Fletcher 57)

The style of drawing reminds one of the Japonisme, which has reached great popularity among European artists in the late nineteenth century. Japanese paintings of this time are known for creating atmospheres and expressing certain moods, which can be related to Beardsley’s drawings. (MacFall 48f.) MacFall puts the artist’s inspiration in the following words: “in The Stomach Dance, the finest drawing of the sequence, he [Beardsley] thrust the mimicry of the Japanese line as far as he could push it.” (50)

At first glance, the figure of Salome catches the viewer’s attention. Rather in a standing than in a dancing position she is facing us frontally. The way Beardsley’s illus­tration is constructed, it seems as if the spectator is watching trough the king’s eyes. Only her bare, forward leant belly and the veil around her shoulders suggest a 'stomach dance'. It should be mentioned that in the time the illustration was published, the late Victorian society did not consider this form of dancing as morally acceptable. (Kaiser 76) The core aspect in this case is, that the painting is too openly showing references to sexuality. (Zatlin 84)

Especially remarkable is the princess’ gaze. Hence she is directly facing the viewer, we can see her lack of emotional participation. Linda Zatlin puts it in the following words: “Despite Salome’s partial nakedness, her body is not seductive, and her glare signals that she is not aroused.” (94) A reason therefore occurs under further analysis of the painting.

Having a closer look at the illustration it becomes obvious that Beardsley uses a variety of sexual symbols within the picture. For instance, Salome’s bare breasts are presented, as well as her vagina, visible through her clothes. Furthermore, her nipples’ shape, which is similar to a blooming rose, is being repeated next to her upper body, where the black circles seem to come out of another veil. The girl is dancing with one of her feet bare, which again participates to her nudity and also supports the ritual of the “dance of the seven veils”.

However, symbols of male sexuality are located on the black ground. Most strik­ing is the devilish creature in the bottom left comer. Although it would make sense that Salome’s dance is supported by a musician, a similar figure is not being mentioned in the play. It seems that Beardsley created a counterpart to the feminine items by adding a remarkable amount of phallus-symbols to the dwarf. Besides the ones at his waist and in the bottom centre of the picture, the instrument that he is playing on can also be associated with a penis. To support this image, the evil creature is holding the lute in a way that it is pointing towards Salome’s private parts. Another phallus-suggesting motive, which frequently appears in Beardsley’s illustrations, can be found in the bot­tom right comer. For sure all these sexual symbols occur with a certain purpose.

Oscar Wilde’s play has constantly vibes of erotic and perversion, in which Salome, as the main character, plays an important role. Tydeman suggests, that the “sexual power-struggle in the text finds its graphic counterpart in the potent illustrative matter” (115), which leads us to the role of men and women that is being presented in the play.

In general, the late nineteenth century has brought new expressions concerning women, such as the “New Woman” or the so called “femme fatale”. Those women are known for breaking out of their traditional roles by acting in a rather ’masculine’ way.

This means that, in the example of Salome, a woman gains power over a man by sedu­cing him with her body until he is willing to fulfil her any wish. In a society where only men are meant to be powerful, such a “New Woman” brings great danger to the old gender-conventions. Therefore, Salome is not dancing to please Herod, but only to reach her own goal, which is kissing Jokanaan’s mouth. To be able to do so, she has to take profit ofHerod’s sexual affection, which explains her emotionless facial expression.

The illustration to Salome’s dance offers similarities to a “danse macabre”, which traditionally contains three themes: dance, sexuality and death. All three motives are represented undoubtedly in the play, as well as in the picture. When Salome de­scribes her affection for Jokanaan, she uses words suitable for a body. (Salome 17-21) Later, Salome dances in order to cause the prophet’s death, so she could finally kiss his lifeless lips. The thought ofhis death arouses her. In the dance itself we find relations to both, death and sexuality. A death’s harbinger is the blood, that Salome is dancing on. It is also sexually motivated by Herod, who wants her dance “for his lust”. (Salome 42) Additionally, Beardsley’s dwarf corresponds to a devilish musician, that traditionally appears in connection with the dance of death. Clearly, the “dance of the seven veils” can be seen as a “danse macabre” for it covers the themes of death, dance and sexuality at the same time. (Kaiser 71-76)

Having a look at Benozzo Gozzoli’s painting “Dance of Salome” (1461-62) we can see that Salome has not been presented this way ever since. In the Middle Ages it was considered useful to familiarise the illiterate proletariat with the Bible (here: Mark 6, 17-29 and Matthew 14, 3-12) by 'story-telling' paintings. The left side shows the beheading of John the Baptist, while in the background Salome is already handing his head over to her mother. Herod, his guests and pages are placed behind a dining table on the right hand side.

Other than in the Beardsley illustration, Benozzo drew a room in vanishing perspective and made use of colours and shadows. All those present are fully dressed in medieval robes, which give information about their social status. Salome is dancing in a long dress, which only leaves her hands, her neck and head uncovered. She is leaning her hip forward while facing the king, who, with his right hand over his heart, seems to be very pleased. We can say that he is the man dressed in red, a common colour to symbolise power. Additionally, no one besides Herod, seems to be touched by the dance.

Whereas Beardsley offers various sexual symbols, they are rare in Benozzo’s painting. One object that might be a hint for sexual affection and cruelty, is the knife, which Herod is holding erected in his left hand. In fact, the “femme-fatale” type has its origin in the Italian Renaissance. (Nagel 57) Salome is presented as she is described in the bible and therefore appears chaste compared to Herodias, who is sitting in the vanishing point and wearing a red dress to underline her dominant female position. (Nagel 55) It seems that, even before Wilde’s play was written, the Salome-story was already associated with a fatal woman.

Another fascinating paining of the same subject is the artwork “Salomé Dansant Devant Hérode” (1876) by Gustave Moreau, one of the most celebrated Pre-Raphaelites and symbolists. Moreau makes use of a technique, which allows him to create a timeless picture by combining stylistic devices from miscellaneous epochs. (Saladin 117) Oscar Wilde, in fact, claims that his play is “Byzantine” like Moreau’s painting. (Fletcher 63)

The scene is set in an ornate room of the king’s palace. The vertical symmetrical system is defined by pillars, which are holding an arcade. The wall behind Herod’s throne divides the picture horizontally. A mystical atmosphere is created by the dim light, that partially illuminates certain reddish areas, primarily around Salome. In con­trast, the dark background holds a royal blue and gold. Additionally, the room is filled with symbolic objects, which contribute to the painting’s “Necessary Richness” (Saladin 117). For instance, a big black cat is placed sphinx-like in the bottom right comer. Her positon opposite to Salome is not surprising, considering that the sphinx is also one form of the “femme fatale”. (Nagel 37)

The four figures in the background from left to right are: Herodias, half visible behind a pillar, a female musician, king Herod and the Executioner. (Saladin 118) All of them are having their eyes on Salome, who is dancing on tiptoes in a long pale dress, in the foreground left comer. She is looking at a white flower, which she is holding close to her face in her right hand, while her left arm is stretching out. In the chosen perspective her fingertips are pointing at Herod’s waist. The white flower might stand for Jokanaan’s chastity and his death. Also the blood-like liquid that she is dancing on, is a hint to his nearing execution.

Herod is sitting enthroned in the vanishing point. He is frontally facing us in ari- gid posture and dressed in a white robe. Any facial expression and emotion is blurred. This leads to the conclusion that, although he is in the centre of the painting, his role is passive.(Saladin 119) Following the middle axis of Herod’s body vertically upwards, we find a statue of the fertility-goddess. Smaller statues are placed to both of her sides. A


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Aubrey Beardsley's Illustrations to Oscar Wilde's "Salomé" (1894). A comparison of Beardsley's illustrations to two earlier paintings of the same subject
University of Passau
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Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, Salome, Book illustrations, illustrations, fin de siecle, decadence, japonisme, Aestheticism
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Christina Haupt (Author), 2015, Aubrey Beardsley's Illustrations to Oscar Wilde's "Salomé" (1894). A comparison of Beardsley's illustrations to two earlier paintings of the same subject, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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