Published  13/12/2005

Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelites

Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelites

The work of Simeon Solomon is celebrated at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to mark the centenary of his death.

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
1 October 2005-15 January 2006

Museum Villa Stuck, Munich
9 March-18 June 2006

Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art
11 September-26 November 2006

The museum acquired its first work by Solomon in 1900, when the artist was still alive. It has since expanded its holdings and has the largest public collection of his work. The notorious end of Simeon Solomon's short-lived career usually precedes any serious examination of his work. The detailed and scholarly presentation of his work, and the surprisingly large number of works that are exhibited, has made the long wait worthwhile. It reveals the wide range of his work and the range of media used at any one time.

Simeon Solomon. Dawn, 1871 c. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

The greatest revelation is the manner in which his work possesses 'a visionary quality that allies him to the pre-Modernist avant-garde in Europe and America, the Symbolist painters Franz von Stuck, Gustav Klimt, Fernand Khnopff, Jean Delville and Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer, and the photographer Fred Holland Day'.1 His biographer, Julia Ellsworth Ford, described him as 'the psychic portrait-painter of Death, Night and Sleep'.2 For the uninitiated, the work of Simeon Solomon is strange and enigmatic.

Simeon Solomon was known affectionately as the darling of the Pre-Raphaelites, until his tragic rejection from polite society following his arrest in February 1873, aged 32, in a public lavatory in London. His charge with indecent exposure (and 'attempting to commit buggery') received a £100 fine and ruined his career. At the time of his arrest, the young artist had been the recipient of a considerable amount of praise, and his drawing was described as genius. He was a fashionable young watercolourist, engraver and oil painter who had been feted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82), Algernon Swinburne (1837-1909) and Walter Pater (1837-94). Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98) described him as the rising genius; William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) remembered him as 'the greatest genius of our set'. In the 1850s and 1860s, Simeon Solomon played an important part in visualising the Jewish experience, especially that of Anglo-Jews who wanted to assimilate in English society, but did not want to relinquish their Jewish identity. At the time of Solomon's death in 1906, Studio described his work thus:

In places nothing more than languidly sentimental, his art at other times rises to heights of a proud and remote mysticism, which only meets its equal in Blake. The artist's ideal is one of Hellenic beauty always, and though comparison has been made between his early work and the drawings of Rossetti, his adherence to this ideal and his love of the abstract is in antagonism to the spirit of Rossetti's art. Rapid transitions from weakness to greatness and then again to weakness gave this extraordinary character to the artist's work as a whole, as it was to be seen in this exhibition. It is inequality to some extent explained by the unhappiness for which the artist's temperament seemed fated in its curious incompatibility with life's daily traffic.3

Simeon Solomon's art and life reveal a tragic decline from respectability, fame and financial security, to disgrace, infamy and poverty. In 1885, Solomon was admitted to St Giles's workhouse in Covent Garden as 'a broken-down artist'. He died penniless, after collapsing in High Holborn, central London, in 1905, from bronchitis and alcoholism. A study of Simeon Solomon has to address major issues about art and society in the late 19th century. The present exhibition groups Solomon's work to this end; the catalogue essays present this intriguing and complex period with great authority and detail. Re-focusing attention on Solomon's achievements as an artist, the curator, Colin Cruise, identifies the main areas as being Solomon's contribution to Pre-Raphaelitism and the Aesthetic Movement. Two important areas where Solomon is a pivotal character are the emergence of Jewish art in England, and art that addresses same-sex love, to quote Lord Alfred Douglas's poem, in which the line made famous in the trial of Oscar Wilde, The love that dare not speak its name. Lord Alfred Douglas was Wilde's lover and the poem was read out in court. The trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895 demanded public recognition of same-sex love and it ensured a public condemnation of it, with the sentence of two years of hard labour. As Emmanuel Cooper states, in his essay to mark the centenary of Studio magazine in 1993, 'Sexuality in art, whether deeply encoded or in more explicit form, is a prime indicator of contemporary attitudes.'4 In the context of public condemnation in the so-called 'naughty 90s', he wrote, 'Simeon Solomon created idealised or troubled visions of same-sex love, which gave form to feelings and emotions which had hitherto been referred to through metaphor or discreet illusion'. In its first issue, Studio 'carried articles and illustrations which made either direct or more discreet references to homosexuality'.5

The art world of the 1890s was largely seen as a platform for discontent with Victorian society. The aura attached to the Victorians had declined and many people sought individualism and independence from society. Art for Art's sake had been established during the 1880s with the Aesthetic Movement. Oscar Wilde's character, Dorian Gray, endorses the view that the artist no longer aims for acceptance and recognition by his critics and the Academy; his work is too personal and private to be displayed publicly. Walter Pater sought to create a new beauty, for no sake but its own. To dissociate art from any form of moral or social judgement was a necessary consequence. Evil and good existed for the artist solely as raw material for his work. Since everything that could be experienced might legitimately be expressed, it became the artist's duty to experience everything, or at least not shrink from any experience presented by life.

The art considered to be decadent in the 1890s was produced by artists revolted by the kind of society that had evolved since the Industrial Revolution: in the eyes of many artists, the values of this society were materialistic and, therefore, inimical to art. Rupert Croft Cooke, in one of the best books on the subject, Feasting With Panthers, wrote:

It was a busy, on the whole pacific, self-satisfied era which drove the writer of the Decadent, the Aesthetic, the art-above-life traditions, to assert himself, not only in print but as a person with an acknowledged place in the scheme of things, a period that caused him to feel anomalous but resolved to escape the drabness and monotony about him, a period to make him seek the support of his kind against the forces of Philistia.6

Arthur Symons defined the aims of English Decadent poets, writers and artists as, 'to fix the last fine shade, the quintessence of things; to fix it fleetingly; to be a disembodied voice, and yet the voice of a human soul; that is the ideal of decadence'.7

Much of the criticism of the Victorian age was associated with their narrow and hypocritical attitudes towards sex. Where there was public condemnation of Manet's 'Olympia', shown at the Paris Salon in 1865, Albert Moore's painting, 'The Marble Seat', was exhibited the same year at the Royal Academy. Moore's painting was highly explicit in its rendering of genitalia, but the Grecian setting gave it respectability. Classical art had become popular in the 1860s. The Classical ideal offered an acceptable framework for conveying images of same-sex love. It was made legitimate by the Greek ideal of love between older and younger men. Classical art was, above all else, a civilising influence and it was, therefore, possible for an artist such as Solomon to use classicism to express otherwise unacceptable emotions. Critics of Solomon considered that his choice of the decadent Roman civilisation rather than Greek was his undoing. In 1870, Sidney Colvin wrote, 'The decadence of Rome, the history of Rome under the Empire, with its frenzy of luxury, its life alternating between ferocious passion and feverish lassitude, offered an ample range of such subjects'.8 The painter, William Blake Richmond, who had praised Solomon's early work in the highest terms, wrote, 'Unfortunately, Solomon departed from his simple genius to accept an artificial and neurotic vein of late and debased Roman Art'.9 Of course, once he was convicted of the far less edifying reality, of illegal homosexual practices in a public lavatory with a young working class man, the imagery, however well presented, represents sad overtones of unrequited love and social rejection.

In May 1858, aged 17, Simeon Solomon exhibited at the Royal Academy. His debut coincided with another important first in Anglo-Jewish history - Lionel de Rothschild became the first Jewish Member of Parliament in England. Gayle Seymour, in her catalogue essay, The Old Testament Paintings and Drawings: The Search for Identity in the Post-Emancipation Era, explores Solomon's highly personal use of Old Testament imagery, as a way of asserting his position as one of the first Jewish artists:

With ['Isaac Offered' (c.1858)], Solomon not only announced his arrival as an artist, but also dared to claim his public position as a Jewish artist. For the next five years, and occasionally throughout the rest of his life, Solomon continued to explore Old Testament themes, often choosing subjects that addressed the paradox of Jewish emancipation - the fact that Jewish-Gentile interaction both fostered Jewish survival and undermined it. In the ancient stories of Jeremiah, Moses and David, among others, Solomon discovered themes that resonated with the issues and attitudes facing contemporary Jews and their problematic status.10

Solomon further emphasised the Jewishness of his works by using Jewish models, reflecting an optimistic attitude to social integration and improvement, which had become possible in the course of the 19th century with the lifting of obstacles for Jews, such as requiring to take a Christian oath for entry into influential professions. As this requirement was lifted, Jews entered the law, attended Oxford and Cambridge, and in, turn, acquired middle-class status: 'Solomon sought to create biblical themes of great significance, using highly expressive figures and archaeologically accurate artefacts'.11 In doing so, he sought to connect fellow Jews to a pristine past, 'more pious and more sincere than the vacuous past'.12 This was Solomon's highly personal manifestation of the disenchantment of the Victorian age, materialism and personal longing. There were, however, only a few patrons to appreciate and buy such works.

Solomon formed close friendships at the Royal Academy schools, including Henry Holiday (1839-1927) William De Morgan (1839-1917), William Blake Richmond and Albert Moore (1841-93). They all admired the work of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the precocious and original work of Solomon attracted the attention of Rossetti and Burne-Jones; he became an integral part of the Pre-Raphaelite community. Solomon enjoyed friendships with Ford Madox Brown (1821-93) and William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). Solomon took part in projects with William Morris, the most important being the design for the stained-glass windows for All Saints Church in Middleton Cheney, Northamptonshire (1865). Morris, in fact, reused Solomon's designs for another stained glass piece in North Church, Greenoch, Renfrewshire, later the same year. The Pre-Raphaelite painters exchanged ideas and practical advice on their respective projects; they also shared models. Solomon was, however, very much younger than the original seven members of the Pre-Raphaelite circle who came together in 1848. Art historians of this period have struggled to appraise the work of Solomon, independent of his dramatic personal life and social decline. Lionel Lambourne described Solomon as an enfant terrible of the pre-Raphaelite movement:13 'More than an enfant terrible, Solomon's late critics came to regard him as the irredeemable Brother who squandered his artistic potential. This perception of a tarnished Pre-Raphaelite, based as much on his personal behaviour as on his artistic achievement, was seen as a metaphor for lost innocence, for both his life and the artistic circle that gave his youthful endeavours context and meaning'.14 In fact, by the time Solomon entered the brotherhood, it no longer really existed. Its undisputed head, by 1858, was Rossetti, the 'dreamer' of the group. Artistic truth for Rossetti 'was found in the exploration of the artist's own nature - his inner and emotional state - rather than the appearance of the natural world. Solomon readily adopted the idea of truth to one's own nature, giving Ruskin's dictum a different nuance'.15 The definition of Solomon's Pre-Raphaelitism overlaps with definitions of decadence in the 1890s. There are many works where the influence of Burne-Jones and Rossetti is marked, the compositions in the 1860s showing women in exotic and luxurious settings. Female loveliness gave way to less robust, sickly individuals. The Illustrated London News detected 'effeminate insanity'.16 Few artists of this period created such compelling images of religious worship and ritual. But, by the mid-1860s, the homoerotic images and androgynous figures are unmistakably his own.

The male figure came to dominate Solomon's art to express a personalised, private world:

The paintings are, in effect, allegories of personal desires, natural phenomena and the human condition. They draw on several sources: biblical and other sacred scriptures, the work of the Romantic poets like Shelley and Keats, and Renaissance painters such as Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli. These allegorical paintings have echoes in the work of Burne-Jones, but Solomon's were both more obscure and more personally revealing; his closeness to Swinburne and to a group of gay patrons, writers and critics such as George Powell and Oscar Browning led him to formulate ever more daring, if somewhat obscure, subjects involving the male nude. These works were received badly, and often objected to on the grounds that they were 'unmanly' or, in some unstated way, immoral.17

The best of Solomon's classical, androgynous works are exceptional, described by one critic as lending genius to worthless subjects, thus producing veritable monsters.18 The psychology of androgyny is a highly complex one, which varies from one era to another. For the Greeks, the androgynous figure was considered to be the highest form of humanity. But androgyny reflects the society that creates it, and while it can epitomise the superior image of Christ for example, it can also depict a persecuted, homosexual. Androgyny reflects the ideals and aspirations of the individual artist, if not those of an entire generation and civilisation; conditioned by upbringing and environment. While homosexuality was illegal and considered immoral, the images are inevitably going to be apologetic or pathetic. This explains how the two images or conceptions of androgyny that dominated 19th-century art, while being the product of the same sources in artistic formal terms, were not only different but representative of opposing ideals. While one image is intended and generally is optimistic, the other is pessimistic and decadent. Simeon Solomon's androgynous figures reveal as much about his own life as England in the 1890s. The ramifications of a figure that combined aspects of male and female, in turn, demanded the equality of women. And in a society where the observation of a strict division of roles designated by sex existed, the moral issues of marriage, legitimacy and paternity were questioned. For such reasons, Solomon's work was vehemently opposed. His late work reveals a self-consciousness that is the result of his attempt to avert attention from his homosexuality. The illegality of homosexuality called for evasive tactics, which, in turn, diminished the sincerity of his early work. Behind such paintings as 'Bacchus' (1867) and 'The Mother of Moses' (1860) there is an original talent, but in his later work, he reworked themes and achieved comparatively little. Solomon had attached himself as a young artist to Swinburne, and fell under the spell of Swinburne's taste for the writings of Marquis de Sade and other erotic and obsessive literature. Solomon chose to align himself with Roman decadence: in 'Heliogabalus, High Priest of the Sun' (1866), Solomon portrays 'the most depraved of Roman emperors and an archetype of deviance, both sexual and religious; he reportedly took lovers of both sexes, and declared himself to be both a woman and the sun-god'.19 Elizabeth Prettejohn's catalogue essay concludes:

Perhaps we shall never be able to fathom Solomon's intentions in presenting Heliogabalus, ordinarily considered the supreme embodiment of Roman decadence, as the focus, instead, for the union of Hebraic and Hellenic religious ideas. Yet the special virtue of Solomon's classicism may be precisely its potential to raise such questions. Solomon never presents us with a comfortable or conventional view of the Western Classical tradition; this helps to explain why many of his contemporaries found his classicism disquieting or disturbing. Solomon's classicism constantly asks us to question the customary divisions of the Western tradition, between Greek ideal beauty and Roman decadence, religious contemplation and erotic fervour, Hebraism and Hellenism.20

The decline and fall of Simeon Solomon and the trial of Oscar Wilde serve to illustrate the nature of the movement of decadent writers and artists in the latter part of the 19th century. It proved that the Victorian era had no sympathy for an individualism that undermined the status quo where sexual mores were concerned. The period is important for the attitudes it reveals and marks a last decade of the Victorian age with the evidence of the appetites that it had starved. The Yellow Book closed. Wilde went to jail. Solomon died a few years later of alcoholism and many writers went to the Continent. Simeon Solomon's early work was so full of promise, but his arrest and conviction in 1878 had effectively destroyed his career. Arthur Symons, on hearing of his tragic circumstances, wrote, 'There is nothing in this world so pitiful as a shipwreck of a genius'.21

Dr Janet McKenzie

1. Cruise C. Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelites. London: Merrell Publishers, 2005: 11.
2. Ibid: 11.
3. Studio, XXXVII, 1906: 67. Quoted, ibid: 11.
4. Cooper E. The Love that dare not speak its name. High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the fin de siecle, Studio, Victoria and Albert Museum. Incorporating the Catalogue to the exhibition, High Art and Low Life: The Studio and the Arts of the 1890s. 1993, London: 48.
5. Ibid: 48-49.
6. Croft Cooke R. Feasting With Panthers. London: WH Allen, 1967.
7. Symons A. The Decadent Movement in Literature. In: Harper's New Monthly Magazine, November 1893. Quoted by Holbrook Jackson, The Eighteen Nineties, 1913: 57. See Calloway S. The Dandyism of the Senses: Aesthetic ideals and decadent attitudes in the 1890s. In: High Art and Low Life, op cit: 41.
8. Quoted by Elizabeth Prettejohn. Solomon's Classicism. In: Love Revealed, op cit: 41.
9. Ibid: 41.
10. Seymour GM. The Old Testament Paintings and Drawings: The Search for Identity in the Post-Emancipation Era. In: ibid: 13.
11. Ibid: 16.
12. Ibid: 17.
13. Lambourne L. A Simeon Solomon Sketchbook. In: Apollo, LXXXV, January 1967: 60. Quoted by Debra N Mancoff. Truth to Nature with a Difference: Solomon's Pre-Raphaelite Identity. In: ibid: 31.
14. Ibid: 31.
15. Ibid: 33.
16. Cruise C. The Dudley and Notoriety. In: (Catalogue) ibid: 127.
17. Cruise C. Visions of Love. In: (Catalogue) ibid: 143.
18. Buchanan R. The Fleshly School of Poetry: Mr D.G.Rosetti. In: Contemporary Review, XVIII, 1871. Quoted by Mancoff DN. Op cit: 36.
19. Prettejohn E. Op cit: 45.
20. Ibid: 45.
21. Arthur Symons in a letter to Herbert Horne, 19 September 1887. Quoted by Cruise C. The Late Works. In: ibid: 163.

Click on the pictures below to enlarge

studio international logo

Copyright © 1893–2024 Studio International Foundation.

The title Studio International is the property of the Studio International Foundation and, together with the content, are bound by copyright. All rights reserved.

twitter facebook instagram

Studio International is published by:
the Studio International Foundation, PO Box 1545,
New York, NY 10021-0043, USA