Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist Art

How Simeon Solomon's Turbulent Life Informed His Art

By Sophie Hetherton

On 12 July 2018, Sotheby’s will be offering a number of Simeon Solomon’s major paintings and drawings at the Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite & British Impressionist sale.

Containing nine examples spanning Solomon’s artistic career, a diverse range of works in various media from intimate pencil and chalk drawings to well-known watercolours and  large oil paintings will be showcase the artist’s changing style and subject matter reflecting his personal circumstances over the period and the external factors that would evidently have a significant impact on his work.

Born in 1840 into a wealthy Orthodox Jewish family, Simeon Solomon’s prodigious artistic talents were noticed from a young age. Encouraged by his elder siblings Abraham and Rebecca Solomon (already established artists themselves), Simeon’s debut at the Royal Academy was only when he was fifteen years old with a work entitled Isaac Offered.

Pre-Raphaelite influence

Emerging after the first wave of Pre-Raphaelite artists, Solomon’s art work was profoundly inspired by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). This influence is most salient in his works completed in the 1860s and particularly in Solomon’s oil painting, Habet! (lot 33) completed and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865 and known to be one of his largest and most ambitious works. The painting, rediscovered in 1996, presents a complex and emotive iconography of a classical scene, featuring richly-attired Roman women overlooking a gladiator tournament. It captures the heightened drama of a specific moment in time; the decision as to whether the vanquished gladiator should be allowed to live or die. A range of emotions can be observed across the eight figures as the imagined cry of Habet! (He is hit!) echoes around the amphitheatre during this intense moment.

"All the heads are full of personal force and character, especially the woman’s with heavy brilliant hair and glittering white skin, like hard smooth snow against the sunlight, the delicious thirst and subtle ravin of sensual hunger for blood visibly enkindled in every line of the sweet fearce features."
Algernon Charles Swinburne On Habet!, Simeon Solomon: notes on his ‘Vision Of Love And Other Studies’, in Dark Blue, July 1871, pp. 571–2.

The depiction of male beauty

By his twenties, Solomon was already a well-established artist amongst Victorian society. Admired by a close friend and fellow artist Edward Burne-Jones, he once exclaimed that Solomon was “the greatest artist of us all; we are mere schoolboys compared with you.” (Simon Reynolds, The Vision of Simeon Solomon, 1984, p. 8). In 1867 Solomon completed one of his three variations of the image of Bacchus, a theme that evidently intrigued him. Bacchus (lot 11), is a sensual depiction of the ideal male nude, seductively clothed in leopard-skin and drapery that half reveals an athletic body underneath. The features of this youth subtly show the androgynous characteristics that came to appear in a number of Solomon’s works depicting male figures, creating an erotic appeal that would become increasingly apparent post-1873.

A scandal in Victorian society

The well-documented turning point in Solomon’s life and career came in February 1873 when he was trialled and convicted for attempting to commit an act of indecency. The incident destroyed his reputation and led to alcoholism, homelessness and eventually a life within a London workhouse. Still painting during this tumultuous period, a noticeable change in his works has been observed by many art historians and his compositions in his later career become less complex and often focus on the human head and form. Potens (lot 2) and Head of Christ (lot 28), both completed in 1896, and Icarus (lot 8) signed at dated 1887 are typical of his Symbolist art produced in his later years.

His works for the last thirty years of his life exhibits Solomon’s inner turmoil and psychological reflection, however finding an appreciative audience for these insightful personal visions proved difficult within a society that became increasingly hostile towards homosexuality, and as a result only a few friends bought his drawings out of pity.

This period in Solomon’s career which produced innovative, skilfully executed and intensely emotional works was never fully appreciated during his life time, however, slowly his reputation after his death regained momentum and today Solomon is regarded as one of the leading members of the Aesthetic movement that emerged from Pre-Raphaelitism and an important contributor to nineteenth century British art.


"There are few more melancholy figures in the history of genius than that of this vivid young Jew with his poetical soul and his distorted mentality, a prey to forces against which he was powerless to battle."
Sir William Blake Richmond in Simeon Solomon in the “Richmond Papers,” Simon Reynolds, The Vision Of Simeon Solomon, 1984, p.6.

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