Simeon Solomon (1840-1905)
Property from the Collection of the Late Sir Colin and Lady Anderson
Simeon Solomon (1840-1905)

A Prelude by Bach

Simeon Solomon (1840-1905)
A Prelude by Bach
signed with monogram and dated '1868' (lower right)
pencil, watercolour and bodycolour on paper laid on canvas
17 x 25 in. (43.2 x 65 cm.)
Ernest Brown, by 1906.
with Ernest Brown and Phillips, The Leicester Galleries, London.
with Leger Galleries, London, 1944.
Sir Colin and Lady Anderson, and by descent.
Athenaeum, no. 2154, 6 February 1869, p. 215.
Illustrated London News, no. 1524, 6 February 1869, p. 315.
Times, 15 February 1869, p. 4.
Westminster Review, New Series, 35, April 1869, p. 596.
Art Journal, 1869, p. 81.
S. Reynolds, The Vision of Simeon Solomon, Stroud, 1984/5, pl. 3.
London, Dudley Gallery, Fifth General Exhibition of Water Colour Drawings, 1869, no. 315, as 'A Song'.
London, Royal Academy, Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters and Deceased Masters of the British School, Winter 1906, no. 180, as 'A Prelude by Bach', lent by Ernest Brown.
London, Geffrye Museum; and Birmingham, Museum and Art Gallery, Solomon: A Family of Painters, 1985-6, no. 59.
Birmingham, Museum and Art Gallery; Munich, Museum Villa Stuck; and London, Ben Uri Gallery: The Jewish Museum of Art, Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelites, 2005-6, no. 69.
Iwaki, City Art Museum; Yokosuka, Museum of Art; and Kyoto, Eki Museum (circulated by Brain Trust Inc.), The Pre-Raphaelites and William Morris: Artists, Designers and Craftsmen, 2010-2011, no. 103.

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Clare Keiller

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Lot Essay

One of Solomon's most important and attractive works, the present watercolour was exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in 1869 under the title A Song. The name A Prelude by Bach was given to it later, possibly not even by the artist himself. The audience consists of eight young men and women, all of whom are visibly moved by what they hear. They all echo the words of the Duke at the beginning of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: 'If music be the food of love, play on'. They wear vaguely eighteenth-century or Regency dress, a motif reinforced by such details as the tapestry on the far wall, the Sheraton-style chair on which one of the listeners sits, and the harpsichord of ebonised wood inlaid with bone or ivory, said to be based on one that had formerly belonged to the Prince Regent at Carlton House.

The picture is a classic demonstration of Aesthetic values. It has no narrative or didactic content, its primary object being to exist as a beautiful object in itself. It relies heavily for effect on formal qualities: a composition that echoes the Parthenon reliefs and a carefully-orchestrated colour scheme. But what establishes the picture's Aesthetic credentials above all is the use Solomon makes of music, allowing it to set the mood and iconographically evoke the idea that because music is by definition abstract it sets a standard for the sister arts. Art, Walter Pater wrote famously in his essay The School of Giorgione, 'is always become a matter of pure perception', and 'it is the art of music which most completely realises this artistic ideal'. To 'the condition of music', therefore, 'all the arts may be supposed constantly to tend and aspire.

Although 'subjectless' compositions were theoretically the Aesthetic ideal, in practice some artists introduced a restrained symbolism, with the result that the boundaries between Aestheticism and Symbolism are often blurred. Solomon's picture is a good example. Why is one youth holding a spray of apple blossom while another spray lies on the floor, together with a blue sash and a crystal ball? Why does the same youth have a winged brooch on his blouse, and should we look for meaning in the iconography of the tapestry? No real answers to these questions have been forthcoming, and they should probably not be pressed too far. After all, blossom appears in many Aesthetic pictures, while the dropped sash is perhaps no more than a means of introducing a touch of blue for chromatic harmony.

The picture was one of three that Solomon showed at the Dudley Gallery in 1869. It had opened in 1865, and was mainly noted for its annual exhibitions of watercolours. The Dudley's art-historical importance lies in the fact that it supported young artists who were developing the concept of Aestheticism, anticipating the launch of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877. Solomon exhibited there regularly from its opening in 1865 to his arrest for 'gross indecency' in 1873.

Press comment on A Prelude by Bach was somewhat mixed. However The Illustrated London News noted that the picture's colour 'deserved praise', while the Art Journal felt that Solomon's exhibits this year had 'seldom shown so much brilliance or singularity. The artist stands alone, although signs appear of a new and rising school in which he might shine as chief'. Emily Pattison, in the Westminster Review, wrote that Solomon's pictures 'constituted, as usual, about the most brilliant attractions of the gallery' and she considered the watercolour 'beautifully composed and beautifully coloured'.

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