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  • Picturing the Paris Salome, May 1907
  • Davinia Caddy (bio)

In 1874, thirty-three years before the first public Paris performance of Richard Strauss's Salome, Paul Cézanne exhibited a work that would prefigure a scene from the opera—that is, in its Parisian incarnation. The scene in question, Salome's "Dance of the Seven Veils," was a popular pictorial subject. Particularly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, artists across Europe—from the well-known (Aubrey Beardsley, Gustave Moreau) to the not-so (Gaston Bussière, Georges Rochegrosse)—gravitated toward the Oriental striptease, variously picturing a dancing princess, sexually potent and ravishing, and a lusty, goggle-eyed Herod. Cézanne pictured something different (see Figure 1). With the subheading "Le Pacha," an early version of Cézanne's painting points not to Salome but to a high-ranking official or dignitary of the Ottoman Empire. (Art historians have pursued the reference, seeing similarities of color-scheme, setting, and subject matter in Eugène Delacroix's 1827 painting La Mort de Sardanapale, a Romantic pictorial drama about an apathetic Assyrian king.1) Yet the Cézanne is still notable for its overt theatrical quality. The visual field is structured as a kind of proscenium space, a white bed raised and framed by red, sumptuous-looking drapery—"exaggeratedly vulgar theatrical décor," in the words of art critic Roger Fry.2 Within this space (to Fry, "an operatic phantasmagoria"), a generic theatrical encounter unfolds: bourgeois male spectator observes female object unveiled before him. More specifically, Cézanne evokes Manet's Olympia (1863), a painting for which the artist, later in life, confessed special fondness: "One must always have this before one's eyes . . . . It represents a new order of painting."3 But the allusion is not straightforwardly deferential. Cézanne's painting, entitled Une Moderne Olympia (Le Pacha), acts more like a caricature, a farcical take on Manet's. In place of brazen sexuality, Cézanne unveils a body wholly insufficient as an object of erotic contemplation.4 The male spectator appears to acknowledge this: his head is turned away from the female figure; he gazes elsewhere, perhaps lost in private reverie.5

Scholars of art and literature have extensively documented the various visual and textual depictions of Salome that appeared at the fin de siècle. In a well-known 1987 study, Françoise Meltzer explores the blending of painting and prose, examining the [End Page 160]

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Figure 1.

Paul Cézanne, Une Moderne Olympia (Le Pacha), c. 1870;

Courtesy of The Athenaeum (

literary depiction of Salome portraiture and the bounds or limits of mimesis.6 Using painting as a means of working through issues of Salome's representation, then, is not new: the classic literary example is Joris-Karl Huysmans's 1884 novel À Rebours with its descriptions of Gustave Moreau's extravagant 1876 canvas depicting Salome dancing before Herod. However, seen from a specifically operatic perspective, Cézanne's painting might be worth pondering, might even be prophetic: a remarkably similar scene unfolded on stage at the Théâtre du Châtelet on May 8, 1907. Here, during the opening night of Strauss's Salome, the much-anticipated "Dance of the Seven Veils" fell flat. Performed by the Russian ballerina Natalia Trouhanova, who stepped in as Salome for the German soprano Emmy Destinn, the dance appeared to lack erotic content; Salome was more chaste and virginal than sensual and sexually aware.7 The illustration on the front cover of the gilded souvenir programme seemed to endorse such a characterization (see Figure 2). A reproduction of an early sixteenth-century oil painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Bernardino Luini, the image offsets the severed head of John the Baptist, dripping blood onto a silver platter, against the upper body of the Judean princess. Yet despite [End Page 161]

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Figure 2.

Programme for Richard Strauss's Salome at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, May 1907;

Courtesy of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France.

the gruesome scenario, Salome looks almost angelic. With da Vincian poise and beauty, a healthy glow, and...


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