October 9, 1840 – Simeon Solomon
The Victorian era was a time of great technological achievements and cultural progress. Queen Victoria was a big promoter of the arts. She was a patron to many artists of different disciplines and encouraged their development. Yet, it was also an epoch of huge setbacks when it came to morality and what society found to be appropriate and decorous. It was a time of social restriction where people were persecuted for their private behavior and public indecency was part of the government agenda.
But wit and style played a vital role for Victorians. Many artists, writers and performers surrendered to the social norms of the Victorian era, while others used those rules to hide their true artistic visions.
Simeon Solomon used the established Victorian themes and norms to portray homoerotic notions and experiences. A member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, he used myths and ancient stories that were perfect for his revolutionary vision.
Most of his work portrays Biblical stories and Jewish everyday life. Yet, he somehow always added queer elements taken from his own experience. He reinterpreted the famous Bible book Song of Songs by changing the normal perceptions of love and desire in his version. He looked at physical love, but also at the concept of love itself, which allowed him to express himself with few boundaries. He found a way to explore queer sexuality and desire without being judged or prosecuted.
He was a particularly important artist his era and he exhibited his paintings at some of the most prestigious galleries. His fame brought many commissions, with paintings for private collections, giving him the opportunity to portray more explicit gay scenes. Even his most mainstream work had bold elements of what were then forbidden relationships codified through the stories and myths.
Moon and Sleep is based off the Greek myth of Endymion who was granted the gift of eternal youth by Zeus and in turn sent to sleep forever. In the painting we see Luna, the moon goddess, who was in love with Endymion, visiting him, which she did every night. This painting clearly depicts two androgynous characters. Knowing Solomon’s love of depicting same-sex desire, Moon and Sleep is one of the many Solomon paintings that allude to same-sex relationships.
Of course, Victorians were not that naïve. Art lovers realized what was going on in his paintings. Eventually they created a huge controversy with some critics signaling his work as being too feminine, and not manly enough. Many found his work decadent and other terms that judged his portrayal of sexuality. Polite society of the time ignored these adjectives as long as the painting showed ambiguity or if these queer desires were only slightly implied or muddled. Most of his paintings include effeminate or androgynous young male nudes that could easily be explained as part of a story. Even paintings which, to the modern viewer, look blatantly queer, were respectably contained within the framework of the classical male nude, the classical ideal of youthful beauty, or a celebration of noble male friendship.
Of course, poor Solomon couldn’t get away with it forever. In 1873, his luck ran out and his successful career was over. He was caught by the police engaging in sex with a man in a public place, so obviously, he was charged with horrifying crime of “attempted buggery” and fined £100. Fortunately, on that particular occasion, they let him go.
But, a year later, he was arrested in Paris for “indecent touching” and was jailed for three months. A decade had passed since the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy, but it was still considered a serious crime. Lives were ruined just by the charge. Solomon wasn’t prosecuted for his art because there was no real evidence of gay content but being caught twice for the same crime got him another three-month sentence in prison. After that, his life began a downward spiral.
He spent years in mental asylums, and he had a perpetual battle with alcoholism. Once celebrated, he lived the rest of his life in extreme poverty. The skillful famous artist found himself living a miserable life for being true to his gayness.
Misery and poverty have not always been impediments for many artists, and Solomon continued to create his alluring, daring paintings until the end of his life.
Solomon’s artistic career includes a diverse range of works in various media from intimate pencil and chalk drawings to small watercolors and large oil paintings with a changing style and subject matter that reflected his personal circumstances over the period and the societal factors that had a significant impact on his work.
Born into a wealthy Orthodox Jewish family, Solomon’s prodigious artistic talents were noticed from a young age. His father, Meyer Solomon, was the manufacturer of Leghorn hats, and his mother was artist Catherine Levy. Encouraged by his elder siblings Abraham and Rebecca Solomon (established artists themselves), Solomon made debut at the Royal Academy when he was only 15 years old.
Emerging soon after the first wave of Pre-Raphaelite artists, Solomon’s work was profoundly inspired by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). This influence is most conspicuous in his works completed in the 1860s and particularly in Solomon’s oil painting, Habet! completed and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1865. It is one of his largest and most ambitious works. The painting was rediscovered in 1996, and it presents a complex and emotive depiction of a classical scene, featuring richly-attired Roman women overlooking gladiators in action, capturing the heightened drama of a specific moment in time; the decision whether the vanquished gladiator should be allowed to live or die. Check out the emotions across the eight figures as the cry of ”Habet!” (He is hit!) echoes through the Colosseum during this intense moment.
By his twenties, Solomon was already a well-established artist amongst Victorian society. In 1867 Solomon completed one of his three variations of the image of Bacchus, a theme of the god of wine which intrigued him. Bacchus is shown as a sensual ideal male nude, seductively clothed in leopard-skin and drapery that reveals an athletic body underneath. These features subtly show the androgynous characteristics appear in many of Solomon’s works depicting male figures, creating an erotic appeal that would become increasingly apparent.
When Solomon left prison and the madhouse he had been held in, he found himself abandoned, disowned by those who had courted him. Even with a destroyed reputation, alcoholism, homelessness and eventually a life within a London workhouse, Solomon still painted during this tumultuous period.
His works from the last thirty years of his life show Solomon’s inner turmoil, but finding an appreciative audience for these insightful personal visions proved difficult in a society that became increasingly hostile towards homosexuality, and only a few friends bought his drawings out of pity.
This period in Solomon’s career produced innovative, skillfully executed and intensely emotional works was never fully appreciated during his lifetime. Slowly, his reputation after his death has regained a bit 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 19th century European art.
Solomon died and because he was Jewish, he was buried accordingly in a Hebrew Cemetery in London. The Royal Academy sponsored a memorial exhibition in 1906 and for the first time, the public got to judge the variety of his achievements.
His stuff is well-hung at The London Jewish Museum of Art, the Birmingham Museum, and the Museo d’Arte della città di Ravenna, Ravenna, Italy, among others. His works were included in the 2017 Queer British Art exhibition at the Tate. Solomon’s reputation continues to grow as does people’s love for his work and interest in the great gay tragedy of his story, all of which combined the momentum for his grave being restored in 2014.
This is my favorite:
Oscar Wilde was a collector of Solomon. In Wilde’s long prison letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis, Wilde writes of his bankruptcy:
“That all my charming things were to be sold: my Burne-Jones drawings: my Whistler drawings: my Monticelli: my Simeon Solomons: my china: my library…”