William Dobson, The Executioner with the head of John the Baptist, 1640-43
William Dobson (1611-1646) was an English painter, praised by John Aubrey as "the most excellent painter that England has yet bred." Born in London, his father was a decorative artist, and he was apprenticed at a young age to a painter and printmaker. Dobson practiced by copying the royal collection, with Titian and the Venetian style having a particularly strong influence. At first Dobson had difficulty finding work, but when court painter Anthony Van Dyck died in 1641, Dobson began to receive many royal commissions, including painting both Charles I and Charles II. Dobson was almost exclusively a portrait painter. Among his most celebrated pieces are a portrait of Dutch painter Abraham van der Doort (c1640) and of his wife, Judith, as well as a self-portrait. Although Dobson was primarily a portrait painter, he did occasionally put his hand to other genres, like this religious painting of the head of John the Baptist. The painting is influenced by Venetian styles in its handling of color and texture, but it also draws on Caravaggio. Although it does not employ his chiaroscuro, the use of light is very similar to those paintings, where it comes from a single discernible source that is present in the scene. The executioner holds the head impassively, while Salome and Herodias gaze at it in wonder. While the light source is clearly the flame held by the boy, due to its close proximity to the head, there is a thematic implication that the light emanates from the severed head, that of a saint. The light touches every corner of the painting, illuminating the beautiful rendering skin and flesh and the textured drapery of the garments.