'The Executioner with the Head of John the Baptist', William Dobson, about 1640-1643
Artist: William Dobson (1611- 1646)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 110.5 x 130 cm
Accession number: WAG 2993
Purchased in 1955
Suggested to be the only English work painted under the influence of Caravaggio in existence, this painting is a copy of an early work by the Dutch artist Matthias Stomer. Stomer's original (private collection, UK) is thought to have been painted in the late 1620s. It may have been brought to England by one of his presumed teachers, Gerrit van Honthorst, when the latter arrived at the invitation of King Charles I in 1628, or if not, then in response to budding connoisseurship of Caravaggist painting in royalist circles in the 1630s.
Dobson's work is very close to Stomer's but differs in two chief particulars. Firstly, although it is virtually the same height it is 22 cm narrower. It lacks the right arm of the executioner present in the original; this suggests that the canvas has been trimmed at the left. Secondly, the face of Salome is treated more naturalistically by Dobson. The implication of this is unclear, but the resemblance between the two faces is too great to allow that Dobson was portraying a specific model and it seems most likely that he regarded Stomer's waxy treatment of Salome's face as an artistic error.
In 1694 the painting was purchased from a Mrs Hall, who has been tentatively identified as the widow of Anthony Hall (d. 1691) landlord of the Mermaid Inn, Oxford, by Thomas Herbert, 8th Earl of Pembroke. The painting remained a well known feature in the collections at the Earl of Pembroke's Wilton House. In 1763 James Kennedy, in his Description of the Curiosities in Wilton House, enthused:
'The Painter is an Honour to the English Nation. This Picture is so finely painted, and with such strong Expressions, as to make him inferior to few of the best Italian Masters. King Charles 1st called him the English Tintoret...'.11