Simeon Solomon, Infamous Jewish Pre-Raphaelite
On the 14th of August 1905, English Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon died in London. He is famous for his dreamy paintings with subjects which often included scenes from the Hebrew Bible and genre paintings depicting Jewish life and rituals. Infamously, in 1873, at the age of 32, his career was cut short when he was arrested in a public urinal at Stratford Place Mews, off Oxford Street, in London and charged with attempting to commit sodomy. “He was tried and condemned to eighteen months’ imprisonment with light labour, later commuted to six weeks in the Clerkenwell House of Correction and a £100 fine, for ‘gross indecency’. Unlike Oscar Wilde twenty years later, who managed to maintain a public presence despite the infamy, Solomon was eclipsed by this judgment, even though it attracted no press attention. His closest friends, including Rossetti and Swinburne, ostracised him, and he lived the last thirty years of his life in obscurity and penury, heavily dependent on the bottle. But he continued to make drawings, and, rather unexpectedly, shortly after his death in St Giles’s Workhouse, London, a large retrospective exhibition of his work was mounted at the Baillie Gallery.” (Andrew Wilton, review of Simeon Solomon. Birmingham, Munich and London, in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 147, No. 1233, Sculpture, Dec., 2005).
In our times, Solomon remains relatively unknown in the Jewish community. “This is probably due to his disgrace after being accused of public sodomy and his subsequent bankruptcy. Though negative stereotypes about Jews pervaded Victorian society and the artist was often described as ‘an ugly Jew’, Solomon was painting at a time that Jews were slowly becoming more welcome. In 1858, Lionel de Rothschild became the first Jew to assume a seat in the House of Commons. The same year, Solomon showed his first work, Isaac Offered, at the Royal Academy, the same institution he would later reject as a pre-Raphaelite.”
As it happens, when Simeon became a pupil in the Royal Academy Schools in 1856, his Professor of Painting there was by chance another Jew, Solomon Alexander Hart, though still a conventional figurative painter. So it is thought that the teenage Solomon single-handedly put down the foundations to a so-called ‘Jewish art’ in the 1850s. According to art historian Elizabeth Prettejohn, Solomon learned “at least some Hebrew,” and he gained “detailed knowledge” of scripture. In his early twenties he was engaged by the Dalziel Brothers to make designs for their Bible Gallery, in which he developed his deep involvement in Jewish history and mythology. He was deeply influenced by the drawing styles of fellow pre-Raphaelites Rossetti and Millais, and he loved reproducing in detail the artefacts and costumes of Jewish ceremonial which brought his art in close resemblance to that of William Holman Hunt and the latter’s interest in accurate biblical subject-matter.
Art historian Debra Mancoff believes that after his infamous trials, Solomon was derailed from his Jewish subjects towards the “unconventional and dangerous territory” of homoerotic subjects by his friend, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Those subjects can be found in his drawing Socrates and His Agathodaemon (see image on the right), his watercolours Bacchus (1867), and Tate’s Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) – see feature image to this article. The latter depicts the embrace of the female poets Sappho and Erinna. It is a known fact that Sappho’s poetry describes the joy and frustration of homoerotic love and her main work expresses her plea to the goddess Aphrodite to help her in her relationship with a woman. Andrew Wilton writes about Solomon that, “As a Jew, as well as a homosexual, he perceived himself as separate from most of his contemporaries, and he was revolutionary in incorporating that ‘otherness’ into his art. But while his sexuality could be expressed only obliquely and allegorically, his Jewishness became at an early stage a creative mainspring. He was precocious in adopting Jewish traditions and rituals as the subject-matter for early drawings, and deliberately chose models of strong Semitic appearance, evolving a personal aesthetic by which to convey their distinctive beauty.” (Andrew Wilton, review of Simeon Solomon. Birmingham, Munich and London, in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 147, No. 1233, Sculpture, Dec., 2005). All these influences should be taken into consideration when contemplating the art of this most unusual of the pre-Raphaelites.