Simeon Solomon — The greatest Victorian artist you’ve probably never heard of
Alastair Smart profiles the life and work of the Pre-Raphaelite artist described by Burne-Jones as ‘the best of us all’ — illustrated with works from arguably the most extensive, private collection of Solomon’s works on paper
Simeon Solomon is quite possibly the greatest Victorian artist you’ve never heard of. A child prodigy who showed at the Royal Academy aged 18, he went on to become a vital member of the Pre-Raphaelite movement. His contemporary, Edward Burne-Jones, called him ‘the best of us all’.
Solomon built up a major reputation with paintings such as The Mother of Moses, and was one of a select group of artists invited to work on The Great Bookcase for designer William Burges (regarded by many as the finest piece of all Victorian furniture). ‘No survey or study of late 19th-century English art is complete without him,’ says Colin Cruise, Professor of Art History at Aberystwyth University. ‘Solomon was an utterly integral figure.’
On 11 July, a comprehensive collection of Solomon’s works on paper is being offered in the Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art sale at Christie’s in London. The question remains, why is he so relatively little-known today?
The answer dates to a life-changing incident in 1873. At that point Solomon was in his mid-thirties and at the peak of his career. However, on the evening of 11 February, he was caught in a sexual act with another man and arrested. Such conduct was illegal at the time, and Solomon was sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment with light labour. That was commuted to a fine of £100, but the artist’s reputation and career never recovered.
‘This was Victorian Britain, and the public shame attached to such an incident was permanent,’ Cruise explains. ‘High-profile friends and supporters [such as the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti] swiftly turned their backs on him.’
In many ways, Solomon’s case — of a gay, cultural figure outed and ostracised by society — prefigured that of Oscar Wilde’s two decades later. However, a key difference is that where Wilde survived for just five years after his arrest, Solomon lived for more than three decades after his, much of that time spent destitute and homeless. He turned increasingly to alcohol and ended his days — in 1905, aged 64 — in the St. Giles Workhouse in Holborn.
Interestingly, though, Solomon never stopped working. Admittedly, after his arrest he had precious few patrons commissioning large-scale paintings from him; plus, he could largely no longer afford to buy oils and canvas. However, he continued to work on paper (as well as, occasionally, on pavements, when he was living on the streets). ‘Solomon was at his most original, intense and provocative on paper rather than on canvas,’ says Cruise.
The 26 pieces coming to auction in London offer a wide range of examples in terms of date, subject and medium. They include Love, an early drawing executed in 1858 when the artist was 18; an 1874 watercolour of a Greek Orthodox bishop blessing his congregation; a monochrome pencil drawing, from 1896, of the mythological hero Orpheus in profile; and an 1862 illustration of an episode from the biblical tale of Ruth and Boaz. There are also a number of gorgeous works in red chalk.
The son of a milliner, Solomon was from a middle class, Orthodox Jewish family. As a young artist, he was renowned, above all, for his scenes of the Old Testament — particularly for the perceived authenticity of his Jewish costumes, artefacts and accessories.
In time, under the influence of Rossetti, he’d progress to imagery that was, says Cruise, ‘less overtly religious but more broadly spiritual or mystical’. In other words, more Pre-Raphaelite. He became increasingly fond, for example, of depicting the female personifications of Night and Sleep together.
Not that the gender of Solomon’s figures was ever really clear-cut. They had a tendency, like Rossetti’s, to look androgynous — something that ruffled the feathers of many critics. Writing in Contemporary Review magazine in 1871, Robert Buchanan said Solomon’s works were ‘veritable monsters’, unimpressed by what he saw as the ‘sickly effeminacy’ of ostensibly male subjects.
Did the artist’s style change in any significant way after his arrest, though? ‘Yes, I’d argue he develops a new sense of beauty,’ says Cruise. ‘A beautiful moodiness, that is. His works become suffused with a kind of melancholia.’
Another development was his new-found preference for close-up drawings of a head in profile; or sometimes two heads in profile facing each other (Mercury & Proserpina is one of several examples in the upcoming sale).
These works allow us a focused look at his subjects; the hope too, perhaps, of even reading their thoughts. However, these are introspective souls — riddles even — and their thoughts aren’t to be shared. In this respect, Solomon is often said to have become a Symbolist in his latter years, with an obvious similarity to be drawn with the disembodied heads of French artist Odilon Redon.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, one Victorian who admired him through thick and thin was Wilde. In 1877, the playwright even described the artist as a ‘genius’ in an article written as a student at Oxford. He’d go on to purchase a number of Solomon’s drawings — and be hit hard by having to give up those works after being declared bankrupt in 1896.
Writing from Reading Gaol a year later to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, in a letter known as ‘De Profundis’, Wilde lamented ‘that all my charming things were… sold: my Burne-Jones drawings; my Whistler drawings; my Monticelli; my Simeon Solomons; my china, my library.’
There was a brief revival of Solomon’s reputation in the years after his death. More than 50 of his works featured in an exhibition of Jewish art at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1906, for instance. Two years later, the American writer Julia Ellsworth Ford published a study of his paintings, Simeon Solomon: An Appreciation.
It wasn’t much of a revival, though. For almost a century afterwards, Solomon vanished from view. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the theatre director Neil Bartlett staged A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, a one-man show inspired by the artist; and 2005 — the centenary of his death — that Solomon had a major retrospective: Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (curated by Cruise, which later transferred to Munich’s Museum Villa Stuck). More recently, half a dozen of his works opened Tate Britain’s successful 2017 exhibition, Queer British Art 1861–1967.
But what of the market for Solomon’s work — is it on the rise? ‘Very much so,’ says Harriet Drummond, Director of British Drawings & Watercolours at Christie’s. ‘The market is mirroring the growth of his reputation generally. In 2016, we set an auction record for the artist — achieving a double-estimate £182,500 for his watercolour, A Prelude by Bach.
‘The great thing about Solomon is that, given he’s still less known than most Victorian artists, his work is very affordable, especially for the quality it has,’ adds the specialist. ‘The upcoming sale is from arguably the most extensive, private collection of Solomon’s works on paper — the drawings start at £2,000 and the top lot is estimated at between £25,000 and £35,000, which is staggeringly good value.’