Dressed in a gold and red gown, her gleaming bronze hair pulled back over one shoulder, young Salome, the stepdaughter of King Herod, gazes down at the severed head of John the Baptist, presented to her on a platter, his bloody body lying crumpled underfoot.
This gory masterpiece by renowned Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens is a vivid take on a biblical story. But the painting itself is subject to another fascinating tale: For over two centuries, it was believed to have been lost. The piece was recovered in 1987 and sold into a private collection in 1998. Now, more than 20 years later, it is back up for auction at Sotheby’s, where it’s expected to sell for up to $35 million.
“Salome Presented With the Head of John the Baptist is one of the most intensely powerful paintings that Rubens ever made,” George Wachter, the Sotheby’s chair, tells the Guardian’s Nadia Khomami. “It isn’t huge but all the same, it totally overwhelms you the second you see it, both because of the shocking power of the subject and because of its sheer technical brilliance.”
Rubens, one of the Flemish old masters, painted Salome Presented With the Head of John the Baptist in 1609 after he returned home from a long period of studying and traveling. The piece “is one of the key paintings that Rubens made after he returned from Italy,” Wachter continues. “Exploding with creative energy, he immediately embarked on what were to become three of his greatest masterpieces: the Samson and Delilah at the National Gallery in London, Massacre of the Innocents, now in the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, and this painting we will be selling in January.”
As the story goes, John the Baptist, a preacher, condemned King Herod’s marriage to Herodias, Salome’s mother. Salome, now the king’s stepdaughter, requested John the Baptist’s head on a platter for her mother, who was furious he spoke out against her marriage. In some later artistic depictions of the episode, Salome is in love with the preacher, who spurned her advances. The story has also been used as a cautionary tale about giving power to willful, scheming women.
“Rubens’ depiction of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist ... is a work in which the still-young artist fearlessly explores the violent and sexual dynamics of the biblical narrative like some pre-cinematic Martin Scorsese,” says Keith Christiansen, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a press statement.
According to Sotheby’s, Rubens’ Salome was recorded in Spanish royal inventories during the latter half of the 1600s. The painting was sold into a private French collection in the 1760s, and after that it disappeared. It didn’t resurface publicly until 1998, when a French family found it in their collection; they had believed it was by a student of Rubens’, not the master himself. In 1998, it sold for $5.5 million at auction.
The painting is part of a group of ten pieces from a private collection belonging to Rachel Davidson and Mark Fisch, “which together rank as the finest group of old master paintings to come to auction in living memory,” per the Guardian.
Highlights from the collection will travel to Los Angeles, Hong Kong and London this fall before returning to New York just ahead of the January auction. They’ll also be on display at Sotheby’s from November 4–13. The recovered Rubens masterpiece is seen as the collection’s crown jewel.
“It’s the kind of painting that, once seen, you won’t forget,” Christiansen adds.