The life of the artist Simeon Solomon reads like the rise and fall of a celebrity. He was born in London on 9 October 1840, the last of eight children in an artistically-inclined middle class Jewish family. His mother Kate Levy Solomon was an amateur artist of miniatures, and his elder siblings Abraham (1823-1862) and Rebecca (1832-1886) were artists who were influential on Solomon’s early artistic development. He was officially admitted to the Royal Academy Schools on 24 April 1856, having been proposed by the Victorian painter Augustus Egg, R.A. About this time Solomon started an informal Sketching Club with his fellow students and friends Marcus Stone and Henry Holiday.
Solomon was early on influenced by Shakespeare and the Bible. His juvenilia reveals the influence of the then popular Pre-Raphaelites on him, in particular the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whom he met probably in 1858 or shortly thereafter. It was also in 1858 that Solomon exhibited his first Royal Academy work, a drawing entitled “Isaac Offered”, and two additional drawings at the Ernest Gambart’s Winter Exhibition. Around 1860 Solomon met others in the Pre-Raphaelite circle, including Edward Burne-Jones, John Everett Millais, and William Holman Hunt. Georgiana Burne-Jones would recall later in life how Edward and she would marvel over Solomon’s skill as a draughtsman and how popular his sketchbooks were at the time.
Solomon’s 1860 Royal Academy oil painting Moses was not well liked by many critics, but William Makepeace Thackeray paid him due compliments in his Roundabout Papers. The Pre-Raphaelite patron Thomas E. Plint purchased the picture and five others from Solomon, thus becoming one of his first important patrons. Other Old Testament-themed Royal Academy contributions from the next few years included Hosannah (1861) and The Child Jeremiah (1862). He would continue to exhibit at the Royal Academy until 1872.
In the spring of 1862, Solomon left his brother Abraham’s studio and took his own at 22 Charles Street near Middlesex Hospital. This significant move suggests his break from the shadow of his elder brother’s influence. Abraham Solomon had been a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy for nearly 20 years by this time, and his reputation in the Victorian art world as a genre painter was great. Abraham’s death in December of that year sealed this transition, and Solomon would thereafter be seen as the greater artist by his Pre-Raphaelite colleagues. Another important event that took place at this time was Solomon’s introduction to the poet and critic Algernon Charles Swinburne through Burne-Jones or Rossetti. Swinburne’s love of classicism and erotica, would be heavily influential on Solomon, who soon afterwards created a sketch of the ancient Greek poetess Sappho and a watercolor of the poetess in a lesbian affair:
Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864).
From this point in Solomon’s career, classicism became a dominant style for him. Following the lead of other artists such as Frederic Leighton, Edward Poynter, and Albert Moore, he began to paint classical works such as In the Temple of Venus (1863) and his 1865 Royal Academy work Habet!, considered by many to be Solomon’s best picture ever. Solomon took the first of three trips to Italy from 1866 to 1867, where he created some of his most beautiful pictures, including two versions of Bacchus (1867) and Heliogabalus, the High Priest of the Sun (1867). Solomon was on the administrative committee for the opening of the Dudley Gallery, a new venue for exhibiting watercolors and afterwards oil pictures, and he exhibited there regularly from 1865 through 1872.
Tied to his new classical style was Aestheticism, the idea of “art for art’s sake” propounded by Swinburne, John Abbott McNeil Whistler, and Walter Pater. Solomon was unique among the Aesthetes, however, in that he often depicted effete or languorous youths such as the Eros figures of Love in Autumn (1866) and Love Dreaming by the Sea (1871). In retrospect, it is apparent that these works represent Solomon’s attempt to explore his own homosexual identity during a time in Victorian England where male-male passion was a criminal offense and could only be expressed in a coded language. Certainly it was not only in these works that Solomon was exploring themes of homosexuality, as earlier in his life other works suggest such an affinity. These include the issue of bisexuality in the drawing The Bride, the Bridegroom, and Sad Love (1865), youthful religious boys in Two Acolytes Censing (1863), and the aforementioned depiction of Sappho and Erinna.
Sadly, this exploration of an alternative sexual identity ultimately led to the end of Solomon’s public career. On 11 February 1873, Solomon was arrested with another man in a public urinal and charged with attempted sodomy. After spending approximately two weeks in prison, he was released on bail. A month later, his original sentence of eighteen months of imprisonment was reduced to police supervision and a fine. Following his arrest, Solomon distanced himself from many of his former friends, although as time passed and he continued to involve himself in criminal behavior, they distanced themselves from him. Swinburne himself would warn many of their former friends to avoid Solomon at all costs.
Despite the end of his public career, Solomon did have his supporters, including members of his family, the photographer Frederick Hollyer, and the Renaissance scholar and collector Herbert Horne. Solomon died a pauper on 14 August 1905. At the inquest it was declared that his cause of death was heart failure brought on by bronchitis and alcoholism. He was buried in Willesden Jewish Cemetery.
Biography by Roberto C. Ferrari
'Simeon Solomon' by David Wilkie Wynfield