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scar Wilde's Salome is perhaps most associated today with the works it inspired, the illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and the Richard Strauss opera, and deservedly so; but it is interesting to note that Wilde's drama was itself inspired by a series of artworks in a variety of media. Many critics here are quick to emphasize the influence of J.-K. Huysmans, who in his 1884 novel Against the Grain elaborately discussed the figure of Salome as portrayed by the French artist Gustave Moreau. Isobel Murray, however, in her introduction to the Oxford Authors edition of the works of Oscar Wilde, makes a point of the fact that Wilde must have come into contact with the paintings themselves first, since Moreau's watercolor L'Apparition (described by Huysmans in his novel), was in fact exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 as part of an exhibition which Wilde himself reviewed at length (xviii). While Murray sees this fact as essentially simplifying the "elaborate chain of connections" which led Wilde to his subject, further research into the matter only complicates the issue. To this newly simplified "chain," Richard Ellmann in his 1988 biography of Wilde adds one significant literary link, Stephane Mallarmé's "Herodiade," begun as early as 1864, and a number of visual ones:

Wilde's knowledge of the iconography of Salome was immense. He complained that Rubens's Salome appeared to him to be "an apoplectic Maritornes." On the other hand, Leonardo's Salome was excessively incorporeal. Others, by Dürer, Ghirlandaio, van Thulden, were unsatisfactory because incomplete. The celebrated Salome of Regnault he considered to be a mere "gypsy." Only Moreau satisfied him, and he liked to quote Huysmans's description of the Moreau paintings. He was eager to visit the Prado to see how Stanzioni had painted her, and Titian, about whom he quoted Tintoretto's comment "This man paints with quivering flesh [carne molida]. [342 ]

Beardsley's The Stomach Dance Beardsley's The SPlatonic Lament

This passage brings up an important point, that before the second half of the nineteenth century, Salome's beheading of John the Baptist was much less a literary subject than an artistic one. It is interesting that Wilde's play seems to have been influential in inverting this situation, and that in the century following it there have been a number of cinematic, literary, and musical works inspired by the story of Salome, but comparatively few visual ones. Even the Beardsley illustrations, with their abundance of caricature and largely irrelevant subject matter, may be read as more an exquisite, satirical commentary on Wilde, than as an actual depiction of the play itself.

On the other hand, Wilde's text drips with elaborate imagery, delicious perversions of the King James Bible that recall Chapter XI of The Picture of Dorian Gray, where we were earlier presented with a similar litany of decadent images, many of which, incidentally, were also supposed to have been culled from the pages of a "poisonous French novel." But this leads us inevitably to the central image in that text of the eponymous portrait, which, on the very first page, Lord Henry suggests should be exhibited at Grosvenor, linking it, perhaps, back to Moreau once again. While the "elaborate chain" of Wilde's works and his sources may eventually prove to be inscrutably complex in its design, the ends of that design are not. Words that paint, images that speak — Oscar Wilde, here as elsewhere, is seeking to destabilize a relationship that we might, otherwise, have taken too easily for granted.


A number of other nineteenth-century writers, such as Ruskin, Pater, Rossetti, and so on, were also interested in the power of words to create images. How are their attempts at word-painting similar to or different from Wilde's use of imagery here?

Beardsley's satirical portraits of Oscar Wilde in the illustrations to Salome are sometimes interpreted as a vindictive gesture, since Wilde apparently refused his offer to translate the play from French. However, self-caricature abounds in Wilde, and thus, the characters of Lord Henry in Dorian Gray, Algernon in The Importance of Being Earnest, and even Herod in Salome have all been understood in this way. How do you understand these characters, and the unusual emphasis on self-caricature in Wilde in general?

Discuss Wilde's Salome and Beardsley's illustrations in relation to the theme of decadence. Are texts and images "decadent" in the same way?

It is often difficult to discern what is ironic in Wilde and what is not. What does he think of his "poisonous" French predecessors, really?

Related Discussions

Representations of Salome [GPL]


Beckson, Karl. Aesthetes and Decadents of the 1890's. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1981.

Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.

Murray, Isobel. Oscar Wilde. Oxford Authors edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Victorian Web Overview Decadents and Aesthetes Overview Oscar Wilde Leading Questions

Last modified 6 December 2007