Simeon Solomon was raised in a prosperous family in London’s East End. He and two of his eight siblings enrolled in art classes at an early age. Both his brother Abraham and sister Rebecca became respected artists. All exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, but it was the youngest brother, Simeon, who attained the greatest fame both during his lifetime and beyond.
Simeon Solomon was one of the earliest Jewish artists to closely observe and portray in his art the rituals of Jewish life. Raised in an orthodox home, he was intensely familiar with and drawn to the rituals of his family. Like most artists of the era, he also was aware of the growing separation between tradition and modernity in the wake of industrialization and the Enlightenment. Drawn to the Pre-Raphaelites, his subjects often explored mystical and religious themes; his art centered around a close observation of nature, an idealization of beauty and a direct encounter with the spiritual, one of the unique features of this movement.
The watercolor version mentioned above was painted in Rome in 1867. It now resides in The Whitworth Art Gallery, The University of Manchester. Two oil versions were painted around 1870, the present example and another now in the Baroda Art Gallery, India. One of these two was shown at the Royal Academy a year later. On that occasion, the reviewer of the Art Journal applauded ‘his usual impressive, spiritual, and mystic manner’ (Art Journal, 1871, p. 177).
This painting diverges in a number of details from the watercolor version, most notably in the background, which in the watercolor shows a grove of orange trees. The present work situates the subject in a finely detailed synagogue interior, complete with stately columns and a beautiful Eternal Light. The young man carries the Torah with dignity and deep attachment, his head bowed slightly and his temple touching the exquisite Torah Crown and matching finials. Above the Ark a woman standing in the Ladies Balcony gazes down at the scene. The artist has lavished equal attention on the figure of the young officiant as on the details of his tallit, the Torah mantle and the Torah ornaments. Bathed in a warm glow which enters from the right hand side, the painting is a timeless evocation of a moment of religious sanctity.
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