'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 fierce features.'
Algernon Charles Swinburne, 'Simeon Solomon: Notes on his 'Vision of Love' and other Studies', in Dark Blue, July 1871, pp.571-2
'...the best picture in the Exhibition where I saw it - that Habet, which was fine indeed.'
Letter from Robert Browning to Isabella Blangden, 26 November 1866
Habet! was exhibited in 1865 at the Royal Academy and celebrated by many art critics as the artist's most ambitious painting. It was his largest picture and considered to be his Magnus opus. In a review for Fraser's Magazine, William Michael Rossetti described it as 'the most conspicuously successful picture, whether it be classical or otherwise', the Athenaeum's critic wrote a lengthy analysis of the scene, and Saturday Review described it as; 'A striking scene in a Roman Amphitheatre by Mr Solomon has attracted an attention which its original power well deserves.' However by the turn of the century it had been lost from sight and was not discovered again until 1996 when it was exhibited to much excitement at Bristol City Art Gallery.
A group of richly-attired Roman women lean from the balustrade overlooking an amphitheatre in antiquity. Down below the crowd bays for the blood of one of the fighters as they watch the gladiatorial combat amid the dust and gore. The cry of Habet! (He is hit!) echoes around as the women make the decision whether to slay the vanquished gladiator or allow him to live. The women's reactions vary from the anguish of the girl who has fainted in a pallid swoon, the horror of another who rushes forward with animated wide-eyed expression, the pity of the woman on the far left whose brow is furrowed with concern and the blood-lust of the golden-haired woman who is making a gesture that suggests that she wants to see the gladiator killed. She is clutching a golden serpent necklace at her throat and showing her white teeth in an animalistic expression which many critics noted as being symbolic of a cold heart and a lust for violence. Swinburne suggested that this figure captures 'the ferocity of blondes' but she was probably intended to represent vanity and the fashion in the Imperial period for dyeing hair. Her expression seems to also reflect a sensuous admiration of the sweaty physicality of the half-naked gladiators. The most enigmatic expression is that in the face of the central figure who seems to be still considering her verdict. She is bedecked in ornate gold jewellery and has an inlaid box in front of her from which she has perhaps been throwing jewelled favours to her favourite combatants. Behind these bejewelled patrician women is a gaunt and melancholic servant-woman fanning her mistress with peacock feathers -symbolic of the decadence and vanity of the main protagonists in this orgy of lascivious cruelty. This quiet and contemplative servant seems weary of the horrors she is witnessing, unable or unwilling to lift her eyes to the scene that she has seen so many times in every aspect of her dominated life. She is as downtrodden as the gladiators, a victim of the cruelty of the rich. The only innocent and unsuspecting face among the crowd is a little girl whose mother seems to be about to pull her away from the horror that is unfolding.
The model for the slave-girl was Fanny Eaton, a woman from Jamaica whose mother was a former slave in a sugar plantation. She also modelled for Solomon's The Mother of Moses of 1860 (Delaware Art Gallery, Wilmington) and for one of the women in the background of Rossetti's The Beloved (Tate). The model for the blonde woman strongly resembles Emma Mary Jones, a professional model who is known to have posed for Solomon at this time and who is best-known as Frederick Sandys' mistress and model for pictures like Proud Maisie (Christie's London, 16 June 2015, lot 18) and Love's Shadow (Sotheby's New York, 5 May 2011, lot 69) which similarly show aggressive femininity.
In 1869 Solomon painted another large picture of Roman decadence, Toilette of a Roman Woman (Delaware Art Gallery, Wilmington). Like Habet! it depicts attendant women surrounding a voluptuously dressed woman, which may have derived from Rossetti's painting The Beloved completed in 1865 but begun in 1863. It is likely that Solomon saw this painting in his friend’s studio before he began Habet! In the 1860s Solomon was very influenced by Rossetti who was also painting classical subjects as part of the vogue for images of romantic antiquity inspired by archaeological excavations and a better understanding of the ancient world. Rossetti's Helen of Troy of 1863 (Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg) depicts a similar cruel indifference as shown on the face of the Empress in Habet!, whilst Rossetti's drawing Cassandra (British Museum) has a similar classical melodrama. Contemporary literature also had a strong influence on Habet! and it has been suggested that sources may have been Bulwer-Lytton's 'Last Days of Pompeii' or 'The Gladiators' by G.J. Whyte-Melville published in 1863. Habet! predates the classical extravaganzas of Alma-Tadema painted almost half a century later and the type of drama depicted in early cinema.
Habet! was bought by a Scottish brewer, Mr Charles Peter Matthews (1818-1891) who owned a magnificent collection of Victorian art, including Millais' Sisters (Christie's, London, 11 July 2013, lot 9), Leighton's Kittens (Christie's, London, 24 June 1998, lot 31) and The Music Lesson (Guildhall Art Gallery, London) and Holman Hunt's masterpiece The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (Birmingham City Art Gallery). Matthews had commissioned Rossetti to paint one of his most ambitious Classical pictures Aspecta Medusa, showing Perseus and his new wife Andromeda with the severed head of Medusa - a subject that was ultimately too grisly for Matthews. Rossetti cancelled the commission and never painted the picture but Matthews clearly did not mind the horror in Habet! which he had bought around the time that he was negotiating with Rossetti. The picture remained with him until his death in 1891.
Rediscovered in 1996, Habet! has been shown in several important exhibitions and will be recognisable to many but it has not been offered at auction in living memory. Oil paintings by Solomon are rare and there are few, if any, that are as significant in the artist's oeuvre as this one - a pivotal picture in the emerging radical contemporary art of the 1860s.
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