Simeon Solomon’s Shame-Free Art

0

 

IN THE HISTORY of homosexuality in Victorian England, Simeon Solomon has re-emerged as a significant figure. A Jewish painter among the Pre-Raphaelites, Solomon was arrested on February 11, 1873, in a public urinal with another man and charged with attempted sodomy. Surprisingly, nothing was published in the London newspapers about his arrest, and it seems his friends didn’t know what had happened until a month later. Inevitably, his arrest led to the end of his public career, a tragedy in the truest sense, as his friend Edward Burne-Jones had called Solomon “the best of us all.” Even though there was renewed interest in the Pre-Raphaelites after World War II, Solomon was still shunned because of his homosexuality.

The 2005 centenary of his death was the occasion for an exhibition of his work in Birmingham, England, which then moved to Munich, and then to London. Since that time, Solomon has begun to be restored to a place in the pantheon of Victorian painters. In a post-Foucauldian world, scholars may be challenged to call Solomon a homosexual by today’s standards, but as this essay will show, he did not live his life in the closet. He was in fact a devotee of “Greek love,” the philosophy of same-sex passion derived from Socrates and Plato, which he would have known about from his Oxbridge-educated friends Algernon Charles Swinburne, Oscar Browning, Walter Pater, and others.

Part 1. The Early Years (1840 to 1873)

Solomon was born on October 9, 1840, in Bishopsgate Without, London, the last of eight surviving children, to Michael Solomon and Catherine Levy, who was an amateur artist of miniatures. The Solomons were a middle-class family. Two of his siblings, Abraham (1824-1862) and Rebecca (1832-1886), were artists as well, both establishing successful careers for themselves as painters of narrative and genre scenes. Solomon exhibited a drawing entitled Isaac Offered at the 1858 Royal Academy summer exhibition, and in 1860 he showed his first oil painting, The Mother of Moses. Solomon’s early work was based on biblical subjects, and his entrée into the Victorian art world as a Jewish painter of Old Testament themes made him stand out at a time when there was still hostility toward Jews.

 Simeon Solomon
Simeon Solomon, Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, 1864.

One can also see in these early biblical subjects that Solomon began to explore his own sexuality. Among his sketches are a number of drawings showing David and Jonathan embracing and kissing, their close relationship described in the book of Samuel. Solomon’s interest in religion, however, did not stop at the Old Testament. By the early 1860’s, he also began painting youths in religious vestments, frequently enacting rituals associated with Judaism and Christianity. These works are homoerotic not only because of the subject matter, but also because of how he painted the youths with a sensual, Venetian-style coloration. In works like Two Acolytes Censing (1863) and Carrying the Scrolls of the Law (1867), the coiffed hair, watery eyes, rouged lips, and rich vestments of these youths eroticize the male body. These works are Solomon’s reinterpretation of the sensual women being painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others in the Pre-Raphaelite circle at this time.

Solomon met Rossetti in 1860 and through him met a number of other artists who became his colleagues and friends. The Pre-Raphaelites are well known today for their sexual escapades. Rossetti’s wife died of a laudanum overdose while he was sleeping with his mistress, and he later had an affair with the wife of his friend William Morris. Burne-Jones married the demure Georgiana MacDonald but had a torrid affair with his model, the Greek beauty Marie Zambaco. The poet Swinburne was known for enjoying birchings and whippings at brothels. Swinburne and Solomon became close friends, at one point reportedly chasing one another naked down the staircase at Rossetti’s house.

Swinburne’s writings of the 1860’s celebrated sado-maso-chism, lesbianism, and the femme fatale, all in homage to the French poet Charles Baudelaire. Solomon illustrated some of Swinburne’s works, including his poem “Faustine” and his novel Lesbia Brandon. It was through his collaboration with Swinburne that Solomon worked on the subject of the ancient Greek poet Sappho, representing her perhaps for the first time as a lesbian in his Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864). Solomon’s art from this point was frequently based on classical subjects, but rather than depict Venus as his contemporaries did, he preferred androgynous male deities as subjects, and he exhibited these works both at the Royal Academy and at the newly established Dudley Gallery. His portrait head in oil of Bacchus (1867) and his painting of the nude youth Cupid as Dawn (1871) show his ever growing interest in men as sexualized objects. However, his private drawings, such as The Bride, the Bridegroom, and Sad Love (ca. 1865), in which a nude man holds his wife’s hand but reaches back to clutch at the bare genitals of Cupid, clearly allude to the challenges of being a follower of Greek love in Victorian England.

Audiences in general may not have been aware of the meaning behind Solomon’s pictures, but some of his friends knew where his sexual interests lay. This is evident in his unpublished correspondence, which provides some glimpses into his personal life. For instance, a letter written to Charles Augustus Howell, an art dealer who ingratiated himself into Rossetti’s circle, begins with Solomon’s salutation to him as “Holy Father” and has further commentary on what seems to be Howell’s penis: “he may seem flat to you but he fills me with expressive wonder.” Solomon closes the letter “Yours in excelsia Priapi,” alluding to the god Priapus, depicted with an erect phallus. In 1871, Solomon attended the trial of the transvestites Stella and Fanny, aka Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park, and wrote letters about them to Swinburne and their mutual friend George Powell.

Solomon’s letters to the Eton and Cambridge don Oscar Browning frequently refer to the beautiful boys under Browning’s tutelage. Their friendship was close enough that Browning paid for their two trips to Italy in 1869 and 1870. It was during this latter trip that Solomon met a young man with whom he began a close relationship, abandoning Browning and traveling to Venice with him. Except for the name Willie, his identity is still unknown. Writing to Browning, Solomon lamented how, on his journey back to England with Willie, they stopped in Paris and became “necessarily divorced,” not because of a fight, but because Willie had missed his train. Solomon laments in the letter, “It was most ridiculous and caused me much anxiety for, not only was I so enraged at being parted from him, but I thought he had no money.” A portrait exists from this period called A Roman Youth and one cannot help but wonder if Solomon’s attention to the sitter’s appearance reveals his feelings for this man, and if we are looking at the unknown Willie himself.

When one re-examines Solomon’s life and art up to 1873, it becomes clear that this was an artist who lived as openly as a Victorian Jewish adherent to Greek love could live at this time. The great tragedy of Solomon’s career wasn’t his sexuality per se, but only that he got caught in flagrante delicto, and that his arrest tainted his reputation and that of his friends, many of whom abandoned him thereafter. Nevertheless, his life and career were far from over.

— Roberto C. Ferrari

Part 2. After 1873: “That Strange Genius”

Writing from Reading Gaol in 1897 to his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde lamented the loss of his precious “Simeon Solomons,” by which he meant several works of art that had been sold two years earlier at an auction of his possessions. Wilde’s appreciation of Solomon can be traced back twenty years earlier, to 1877, when he described Solomon as “that strange genius” in an article written for the Dublin University Magazine while an undergraduate at Oxford.

This article, which mentions Solomon favorably along with the other Pre-Raphaelite greats Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and Edward Burne-Jones, is notable because it demonstrates Wilde’s awareness of and respect for Solomon’s work, including his 1871 prose poem, A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep. By the time Wilde’s article was published, Solomon had been banished from the newspaper art columns and exhibition rooms of respectable London society, and the artist’s former friends and colleagues, the London artistic elite, would only mention his name in whispers for fear of being associated with “the sodomite.”

Solomon’s arrest took place at 7:10 P.M. on February 11, 1873. He was arrested with George Roberts, a sixty-year-old stableman who “could read but not write,” in a public urinal in Stratford Place Mews, off Oxford Street, in London. Having subjected both men to a humiliating and intimate examination of their rectums and genital areas at the Marylebone Police Station, the officiating medical doctor presented his evidence at the trial, and both men were convicted of unlawfully committing “the abominable crime of buggery.” Roberts was eventually sentenced to eighteen months of hard labor in the House of Correction at Cold Bath Fields, while Solomon escaped a custodial sentence and was released to the care of his cousin Myer Salaman on a surety of £100 and the promise that he would behave himself in the future.

Solomon’s fall from respectable society would have a huge impact on the way that he lived out the remaining 32 years of his life. Shunned by London’s artistic elite, he was destined to spend much of this later period living in poverty among London’s destitute and homeless. Nonetheless, Solomon would continue to work and behave in a way that compromised neither his sexuality nor his art.

The subsequent neglect of the artist, or the tendency to dismiss him as a drunken and degenerative miscreant, was fueled in part by Wilde’s lover Robbie Ross, who produced speculative tales of Solomon’s “scandalous” and “eccentric” behavior—tales that were, in turn, reproduced and embellished by later writers. Indeed, until recent times his critics confidently attributed to Solomon many of the same attributes that were associated with Oscar Wilde: those of a repentant Victorian homosexual whose life ended in self-induced tragedy. The general climate of homophobia and the continued criminalization of homosexual acts in Britain until 1967 tended to color any critical attention that was paid to both Wilde’s and Solomon’s life and work. Since that time, however, archival research has been developing a very different account of the last 32 years of Solomon’s life, demonstrating among other things that he was unrepentant about his sexuality and that he continued to pursue sexual fulfillment through his work. He also exerted considerable influence on a younger generation of Victorian gay men.

Unlike Wilde’s lamentations of regret, guilt, and disgrace in De Profundis, Solomon’s writings provide no evidence that he experienced similar feelings about his sexuality. On the contrary, he continued to “behave badly,” as revealed by the fact that he was arrested again a year after the first arrest, in Paris, at a public urinal, with male prostitute named Henri Lefranc. Solomon was charged with “outrage publique à la pudeur” (public indecency), for which he was convicted and served three months in a Paris jail. It seems probable that the main intent of his sojourn in Paris was to find sexual gratification, as he chose to stay at a hotel in an area that was known for its associations with a queer Paris subculture. In fact, Solomon was arrested in the Bourse district, which was an infamous cruising spot for gay men.

Solomon continued to produce work around the time of the London and Paris arrests, and in the early 1870’s he completed a commission of four large watercolor paintings for a London solicitor. He also presented himself to Devonshire society by giving public readings of Charles Dickens’ work. His artist sister Rebecca remained in their shared studio on London’s bohemian Fitzroy Street until at least the end of the 1870’s, and Solomon’s work continued to be exhibited at galleries in Liverpool, Manchester, and Birmingham, as well as in London.

Nearly all of Solomon’s later work, of which there are perhaps 400 or more extant pieces—works with titles like A Vision of Wounded Love and Sin Gazing Upon Death—reflects his personal iconography and mythical vision. Greatly influenced by Rossetti’s early poetry, this vision was elaborated in his 1871 prose poem A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep, which describes a narrator journeying through an unknown landscape while in a dream state, where he experiences visions of various forms and conditions of true love. The homosexual art critic and historian John Addington Symonds was among the very few people who understood the work’s symbolism, noting in a later review that it was the key to understanding the artist’s paintings.

Solomon’s personal journey of same-sex love—“Divine Love,” as he calls it in the poem—reveals itself in these works, many of which are small chalk or pencil drawings and watercolors, produced from 1873 to 1905. These works demonstrate a complex private mythology of ideas that encompass a mix of Judaism, Catholicism, Buddhism, and Greek mythology. Many of these images continue Solomon’s earlier use of the sexual and moral ambiguity of the androgynous male, but they tend to be simpler in composition than his earlier work, often concentrating on an image of one or two heads in profile. The artist’s later work also reveals a move from the Pre-Raphaelitism of Rossetti to the fantasy of Symbolist imagery.

In the 1880’s and 90’s, despite a growing dependence on alcohol, periods of chronic poverty, and time spent in and out of the St. Giles’ Workhouse in one of London’s poorest areas, Solomon continued to work, supported by the few friends and family members who had not abandoned him. His drawings and paintings were reproduced as photographic copies by London photographer Frederick Hollyer, who had worked with all of the Pre-Raphaelites in earlier times. This work found its way to Oxford’s student halls, where a new generation of young men, including Wilde, was introduced to Solomon’s androgynous and homoerotic imagery. Among these young men was the æsthetic poet Lionel Johnson, whose rooms on Fitzroy Street were reportedly lined “wall to wall” with Solomon’s art. Johnson would eventually become part of the Rhymers’ Club of poets alongside W. B. Yeats, Arthur Symons, and Ernest Dowson. Solomon’s personal association and influence on members of the Rhymers’ Club would later be recorded by Yeats and others in published memoirs.

Another former student and mutual friend of the Rhymers’ Club, whose interest in Solomon was also nurtured at Oxford, was the eccentric and flamboyant homosexual Count Eric Stanislaus Stenbock. He was an Anglo-Baltic-German aristocrat by descent, a friend of Wilde and More Adey, and thoroughly captivated by Solomon’s imagery. Seeking the artist out and befriending him, Stenbock became a patron of Solomon’s art, giving him clothes, food, and money, and providing him with a small studio in which to work. During the period of Stenbock’s patronage, which probably lasted until the Count’s premature death in 1895, Solomon’s work was published by designer Herbert Horne in his Arts and Crafts periodical The Century Guild Hobby Horse. The journal linked the former Pre-Raphaelites with the poets of the 90’s, and it seems fitting then that Solomon’s work was represented.

After 1892, Solomon’s work was being sold on Oxford Street by W. A. Mansell & Co., and it was also becoming known in the U.S. due to Frederick Hollyer’s exporting of the artist’s drawings. The American journal The Art Amateur published a number of Solomon’s drawings during the 1890’s and advertised that Hollyer’s reproductions of his work, along with that of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, could be obtained through the London Art Publishers, based in Philadelphia. In 1896, a hundred of Solomon’s watercolor paintings and drawings were exhibited at the McClees Gallery in Philadelphia and at the Klackner Gallery in New York. It is not surprising, then, that the first monograph on Solomon, published in 1908, three years after his death, was written by an American author, Julia Ellsworth Ford, who met Solomon toward the end of his life at a photographer’s studio in London. According to Ford, Solomon appeared to be articulate, up-to-date with current affairs, and still passionate about his work and his vision despite the onset of old age, acute rheumatism, and various ailments following a life lived on the mean streets of 19th-century London.

Solomon died in the dining room of St. Giles’ Workhouse on August 14, 1905, at the age of 65. He left behind a legacy of hundreds of works of art and a uniquely inspiring story of a life lived without compromise in relation both to his sexuality and to his creative vision.

— Carolyn Conroy


References

Conroy, Carolyn. He Hath Mingled with the Ungodly: The Life of Simeon Solomon after 1873 with a Survey of the Extant Work. PhD Dissertation,  University of York, 2009.
Ferrari, Roberto C. “The Unknown Correspondence of Simeon Solomon.” The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 12 (Spring 2003): 23-34.

 

Roberto C. Ferrari is a doctoral candidate in art history at the City University of New York.  Carolyn Conroy received her doctorate from the University of York in England. Together they manage the online Simeon Solomon Research Archive at simeonsolomon.com.

 

Share