Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1908, the picture treats the well-known subject of Eve's miraculous creation from a rib-bone of the sleeping Adam (Genesis, chapter 2, verses 21-3). The theme is common in western art, notable examples being those of Michelangelo on the Sistine ceiling and Raphael in the Loggie of the Vatican. Although the Bible describes God taking one of Adam's ribs and fashioning Eve from it, artists tended to show her emerging fully-formed from her husband's recumbent body. This is essentially the convention that Solomon follows, Adam being seen in a foreshortened pose in the foreground. Nor does he accept the pedantic notion, adhered to in some renderings, that our first parents should be shown without navels.
The obvious comparison with Solomon's picture had been provided by G. F. Watts. Obsessed with the story of the Fall in Genesis, so integral to his cosmic vision, he treated the subject of Eve's nativity in two distinct compositions. The Creation of Eve, a narrow upright design full of spiral movement, was conceived in the mid-1860s. Two small versions, one unfinished, exist in the Watts Gallery, while a larger canvas, completed in 1899, is in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard. The other account of the theme, entitled 'She shall be called Woman', forms part of the so-called 'Eve triptych' that Watts presented to the new Tate Gallery in 1897.
These compositions must have been well known to Solomon. For ten years (1887-97) he lived at 18 Holland Park Road as part of the artists' colony that had grown up in this area since the 1860s. Sir Frederic Leighton, the President of the Royal Academy, was the Zeus of this little Olympus, but Watts, a stone's throw away in Melbury Road, was another revered denizen, and Solomon almost certainly saw examples of his Eve paintings when visiting his studio. Moreover they invariably appeared in the exhibitions of Watts's collected works that were held in London during the relevant period at the Grosvenor Gallery (winter 1881), the New Gallery (winter 1896) and the Royal Academy (winter 1905).
Solomon was forty-seven when his colossal picture appeared at the Royal Academy. The fourth son of a Bermondsey leather-dealer who had married a cultured girl from Vienna, he had shown artistic talent from an early age. In the third quarter of the nineteenth century a Jew who wished to become a painter still faced prejudice from his own people on both social and religious grounds, but having overcome his father's objections young Solomon entered Heatherley's Art School in 1876 at the age of sixteen. John Lavery, though four years older, was a fellow student. The following year he graduated to the Royal Academy Schools, where H.H. La Thangue, Stanhope Forbes and Arthur Hacker were among his contemporaries. Hacker, whose style and aspirations were in many ways similar, became a lifelong friend, and in the early 1880s they travelled extensively together in Spain, Italy, Germany and Holland.
Like so many of his generation of artists, Solomon felt the need of more varied training than was available to him in the RA Schools, and for nine months in 1882-3 he studied under Alexandre Cabanel (1824-1889) at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Cabanel was a leading 'pompier' artist, an exponent of academic values which he had inherited directly from Ingres himself through his master, François Picot. These values he passed on to Solomon. Indeed, nowhere are they more evident than in Eve, which immediately evokes comparison with one of Cabanel's most celebrated pictures, La Naissance de Venus (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), unveiled at the Salon of 1863 and later repeated in many versions by the artist himself. Solomon's Eve might be described as a Wattsian subject seen through the academic lens of Cabanel. Just as Cabanel's work had appealed to the taste of the Second Empire in France, so Solomon's picture embodies the sublime self-confidence of the British Empire in its Edwardian heyday. It seems highly appropriate that the picture was shown at the British Empire exhibition held at Wembley in 1924-5.
But there is a sense in which contemporaries saw things differently. Solomon's career seemed to go from strength to strength. It was a shrewd move to join the Holland Park circle of artists in 1887, and the same year he scored a great success at the RA with the huge and melodramatic Samson (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), still probably his best-known picture. In 1896 the Academy elected him an Associate and full membership followed a decade later, making him only the second Jew to be accorded this honour. (Solomon Hart was the first, in 1840. Abraham Solomon was elected ARA on the very day of his death, 19 December 1863). Meanwhile in 1897 he had married and moved to St John's Wood, which by now had succeeded Holland Park as the domicile of choice for successful academic artists. He was to leave the area in 1903, but his final address, 18 Hyde Park Gate, only seemed the more appropriate for a pillar of the artistic establishment. Further signs of official recognition, including a commission to paint the Coronation Luncheon at the Guildhall in 1914, and the Presidency of the Royal Society of British Artists four years later, were to follow.
For all his success, however, Solomon exemplifies a phenomenon examined in the Last Romantics exhibition held at the Barbican Art Gallery in 1989, namely the dilemma faced by artists who had grown up thinking in terms of 'history' pictures, usually with literary or religious themes, only to find that such works had gone out of fashion. Even Burne-Jones failed to sell pictures in the last years of his life (he died in 1898), and a younger generation, who still had their careers before them, faced a bleak prospect. Though some struggled on against all the odds, many diversified by moving into more accessible genres such as portraiture and landscape. Solomon's friend Arthur Hacker developed a line in London street scenes at night, dramatically lit by gas or electricity. Solomon himself was fortunate in that he had a genuine talent for portraiture, helping to found the Society of Portrait Painters in 1891 and establishing a distinguished and varied clientele. His sitters included King George V, Earl Haig, Ramsay Macdonald, Viscount Harcourt, the Maharajah of Baroda, the actresses Irene Vanbrugh and Mrs Patrick Campbell, the writer Jerome K. Jerome, and such prominent members of the Jewish community as Israel Zangwill and Ludwig Mond. Nor was portraiture his only way of evading the painting of serious subject pictures that was historically the business of the academic artist. In retrospect, the enormous amount of energy that he devoted to camouflage during the First World War may be seen in the same light.
The reception of Eve in 1908 reflects the dramatic change in taste with which an artist like Solomon was confronted. Though a major statement by any standard, the picture had a mixed reception in the press. It is true that it was praised in the Art Journal. 'Mr Solomon's...picture...is really a wonderful piece of work', it enthused. 'The conception of the lower part of Eve's body swinging, as it were, in the sunlight while the upper part is overshadowed and eclipsed by the terrible wings of eternal beings, is a fine general conception'. But then the writer was G. K. Chesterton, no ordinary critic, and one who in any case may have been swayed by his passionate admiration for G.F. Watts, on whom he had published a book four years earlier.