Simeon Solomon

The biblical paintings of the formerly obscure painter are undergoing a revival.

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Simeon Solomon represented dozens of subjects from the books of Genesis, Exodus, Kings, Ezekiel, Ruth, and Song of Songs. Though he created paintings and drawings with titles such as Eve of the Sabbath and Jewish Wedding Ceremony (both published in 1862) and Carrying the Scrolls of the Law (1867), Solomon is relatively unknown in the Jewish community. This is probably due to his disgrace after being accused of public sodomy and his subsequent bankruptcy. Yet trends in current scholarship are giving Solomon's work a life after death.

Growing Up as an "Ugly Jew"

The eighth child of Michael Solomon and Catherine Levy, Simeon was born in London on October 9, 1840. His father, a merchant who sold Leghorn hats--and the first Jew to be named a Freeman of the City of London, a prerequisite to practicing business in London--died when Simeon was still a teenager. 

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, 1863
 

After his father’s death, Solomon’s brother Abraham taught him studio drawing, while his sister Rebecca was responsible for his Jewish education. According to art historian Elizabeth Prettejohn, Solomon learned "at least some Hebrew," and he gained "detailed knowledge" of scripture.

In his 20s, Solomon joined the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of painters and poets that formed in 1848 as a reaction against London’s top art establishment, the Royal Academy. The brotherhood's name reflected its members' desire to return to the morality and sincerity that characterized art before the Italian Renaissance, literally pre-Raphael. The Pre-Raphaelites often included religious symbols and figures in their art, so in this sense Solomon fit right in. 

As a Jew, though, Solomon remained an outsider. In her diary, Solomon's friend Emily Ernestine Bell called him "very young, ugly, and Jewish looking." Solomon was "certainly not good looking, rather the reverse," the historian Oscar Browning, who knew Solomon, echoed. "He was very Jewish but not of the attractive type."

Though negative stereotypes about Jews pervaded Victorian society, Solomon was painting at a time that Jews were slowly becoming more welcome. In 1858, Lionel de Rothschild became the first Jew to assume a seat in the House of Commons. The same year, Solomon showed his first work, Isaac Offered, at the Royal Academy, the same institution he would later reject as a pre-Raphaelite.

Painting the Bible

Solomon's depiction of the binding of Isaac, painted when the artist was 15, set the tone for his career. At 18, Solomon painted Finding of Moses, which earned the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray's praise for its "great intention." The painting shows a woman carrying the infant Moses, while Miriam, who carries the tambourine she would later play at the Red Sea, walks at her side. The woman’s headscarf has black stripes which resemble a tallit, suggesting that she is Jocheved, Moses’ mother, rather than Pharaoh’s daughter.

Solomon also depicted other biblical characters: Adam and Eve; Abram and Malkizedek; Hagar and Ishmael; Aaron; Ruth and Boaz; David and Jonathan; Solomon; Shadrakh, Meshakh, and Abednego; and Ezekiel.

In Solomon's 1867 painting Carrying the Scrolls of the Law, a young man wearing a tallit and a black cantor's hat carries a Torah scroll, which is covered by a deep red mantle. Over the mantle, Solomon included a silver pointer (yad) attached to a chain that bears a pendant with an Hebrew inscription that seems to say " God is holy.”

Prettejohn has observed that the young man, whose left hand appears to slip beneath the mantle, might be acting "contrary to Jewish law, to touch the scroll itself beneath the drapery." Indeed, touching Torah parchment (klaf) is forbidden. But though Prettejohn takes the work to be irreverent, Solomon's subject might very well be holding the Torah’s handles (etz hayim).

Indecent Exposure, Subsequent Underexposure, then Re-exposure

In February 1873, Solomon, then 32, was arrested for indecent exposure in a London public bathroom. The police could not prove Solomon and the 60-year-old stableman George Roberts had committed sodomy, so they were charged with indecency. Solomon was fined and sentenced to six weeks in a correctional facility.

Socrates and His Agathodaemon

Socrates and
His Agathodaemon, undated

Unable to sell paintings with his tarnished reputation, Solomon had to turn to his family for support. But he used their gifts to fund his drinking habit, so they sent him to an asylum in 1880. Though he was eventually discharged, Solomon remained bankrupt and dependent until he died from a heart attack in 1905.

According to art historian Debra Mancoff, Solomon had been steered away from his Jewish subjects to the "unconventional and dangerous territory" of homoerotic subjects by his friend, the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne. Those subjects include Solomon’s Socrates and His Agathodaemon (undated drawing), which shows the bearded Greek philosopher wearing a toga, standing beside a young, nude boy, and his watercolor Bacchus (1867), which depicts the wine god as a boy wearing an animal skin which barely covers one shoulder.

The emergence of gender and queer studies as legitimate fields has brought more attention to Solomon and his work. Created in September 2000, the Simeon Solomon Archive now gathers biographical information, images, and secondary sources about the artist. Solomon is becoming the subject of study among more art historians, and his life after 1873 is now the subject of at least one doctoral dissertation.

Even as some of Solomon's critics have dismissed his Jewish work as sentimental, which some historians take to be genteel anti-Semitism, the word "genius" has often been applied to Solomon. As the biblical painter's work is reexamined, those with interests in Jewish art, the bible, and LGBT issues will continue to find Solomon's art very compelling.

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Menachem Wecker

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He lives in Washington, D.C.