This bronze bust represents John the Baptist, the itinerant preacher who baptized Jesus Christ and is commonly considered his precursor. Rodin’s depiction is very natural and realistic: John’s long hair and beard, along with his sunken cheeks and bony chest, evoke the ascetic life the preacher lived in the desert. In addition, the deep holes with which the eyes are pierced, giving the illusion of an intense gaze, the open mouth and the chin slightly risen up convey the intense concentration and sincere faith of the saint's preaching act. Thus, a strikingly spiritual expression emanates from the figure.
As was his practice, Rodin based the bust on an actual person, an Italian peasant from the Abruzzi region called Pignatelli, who agreed to pose for him. Rodin himself described how the man caught his attention: "As soon as I saw him, I was filled with admiration; this rough, hairy man expressed violence in his bearing, his features and his physical strength, yet also the mystical character of his race. I immediately thought of a Saint John the Baptist, in other words, a man of nature, a visionary, a believer, a precursor who came to announce one greater than himself."
The bust is typical of Rodin's creative process in having been developed as an independent sculpture from a monumental full-length statue of John the Baptist, which the artist exhibited in its plaster version at the Salon of 1881 in Paris. This large plaster was greatly admired: a bronze version was commissioned by the French government and is now in Paris, Orsay Museum.