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.

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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.