Bacchus (1867), Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery
Simeon Solomon (1840 –1905)
London born Solomon was part of a family of wealthy Jewish merchants. In his youth, he was astonished by the Biblical stories of David and Jonathan, and he used his works to express same-sex sexual attraction. Solomon was a leader in moving British art away from the Pre-Raphaelites and bringing a more sensual and liberated sensibility to painting, a move that garnered scorn from the critics of his day.
Bacchus shows a young man whose divine, androgynous beauty tempts and blinds, against the backdrop of a mountain sunset.
As a student at the Royal Academy in London, Solomon’s first exhibition was in 1858. He continued to show his work at the Royal Academy’s galleries until 1872.
In 1873, at 32-years-old, and at the height of his artistic career, Solomon was arrested with a laborer in a public urinal in Stratford Place Mews in London. Both men were charged with “unlawfully attempting to commit the abominable crime of buggery”. They insisted that they were innocent, but the court found both of them guilty of attempted sodomy.
Solomon served six weeks at the Clerkenwell House Of Detention. After his release, Solomon was admitted to two separate private lunatic asylums in London by his desperate, confused family, but both stays were brief, and on both occasions Solomon was, unsurprisingly, discharged as “unimproved”. A year later, he was arrested in Paris in a public urinal with a male prostitute. He was charged with “outrage public à la pudeur” and served three months in a Paris jail.
In the 1880s and 1890s, despite drinking too much and periods of deep poverty, with time spent in and out of the St. Giles Workhouse in one of London’s poorest areas, Solomon continued to work, supported by friends and family who had not abandoned him. His drawings and paintings were reproduced as photographic copies by London photographer Frederick Hollyer. This work was popular with a new generation of a certain kind of young men, including Oscar Wilde. The gay poet Lionel Johnson, filled his London flat lined with Solomon’s art. Irish poet W. B. Yeats was a collector too.
Wilde’s lover Robbie Ross, shared speculative tales of Solomon’s “scandalous” and “eccentric” behavior. The homophobia and the criminalization of homosexual acts in Britain that lasted until 1967 colored the critical attention that was paid to both Wilde’s and Solomon’s life and work. In the final three decades of Solomon’s life, he was open about his gayness. He also exerted considerable influence on the next generation of gay men.
In 1905, at 65-years-old, Solomon died from complications from alcoholism. He was buried at the Jewish Cemetery in the working-class London neighborhood of Willesden.
Solomon produced hundreds of pieces. They can be found in important museums and galleries around the globe, including The Tate, The Victoria and Albert, The Musée d’Orsay and The Metropolitan Museum Of Art in NYC.
UPDATE: OOPS! Our bad! The first version of this story incorrectly labeled the museum this painting is at!
Hi guys, this is great but wrong museum! It’s in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (UK) collection not Birmingham Museum of Art (USA).
— Birmingham Museums (@BM_AG) August 8, 2017