The Apparition portrays Salome who, according to the Gospels, bewitched the ruler Herod Antipas, the husband of her mother Herodiad, with her dancing. As a reward she was given the head of John the Baptist.
Is Moreau illustrating the end of Salome's dance in this watercolour? The head would then appear to her as the image of her terrifying wish. Or is it a scene after the beheading, an image of remorse? For Huysmans the "murder had been committed". Salome remains a femme fatale, even when filled with horror, in a long description he wrote about the work in chapter five of Against Nature (1884). According to other critics, it was the painter's consumption of opium which produced hallucinations like this. Although unfounded, this accusation has persisted over many years.
As he often did, Moreau has used several motifs for his composition. The head of John the Baptist, with its halo, recalls a Japanese print copied by Moreau at the Palais de l'Industrie in 1869. It is also reminiscent of the famous head of Medusa, brandished by Perseus, in Benvenuto Cellini's bronze in Florence (Loggia dei Lanzi). As for the decoration of Herod's palace, it is directly inspired by the Alhambra in Granada. Through these disparate elements, Moreau recreates a magnificent, idealised Orient, using complex technical means: highlighting, grattage, incisions etc.
At the 1876 Salon, The Apparition was bought by the Belgian art dealer Léon Gauchez (1825-1907). The following year he loaned it for the first exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. Gauchez had already sent a Sappho painting by Moreau for exhibition in London in 1871. This interaction gives an idea of how Moreau's reputation in literary and artistic circles spread rapidly across Europe.