October 9, 1840, is the birthdate of Simeon Solomon, the prolific but, until recently, long-forgotten English artist whose work often incorporated both Jewish themes and homo-erotic ones.
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Solomon – who worked in oil, watercolor and engravings, and later charcoal and chalk – was an extremely popular and well-regarded artist, until, at age 32, he was arrested while engaging in sex with another man in public. From then on, until his death at age 64, he became persona non grata in English society. He also became increasingly destitute, even as he continued to turn out copious quantities of art that has in recent decades become the subject of study and of rising prices.
Simeon was the youngest of the eight children of Michael (or Meyer) Solomon and the former Katherine Levy. His father was a prosperous manufacturer, the first Jew to be named a freeman in the City of London - a status that at the time afforded the holder certain economic privileges. His mother was a painter of artistic miniatures. The family lived in Bishopsgate, in London’s East End.
Simeon’s brother Abraham and sister Rebecca were also artists. Abraham was the one who taught Simeon studio drawing, while Rebecca gave him his Jewish training, which included extensive knowledge of the Bible. At age 15, Simeon was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools. It was there that he made the acquaintance of members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of artists, which included Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.
Through them, he later also became friends with the poet Algernon Charles Swynburne, whose erotic novel “Lesbia Brandon” he illustrated in 1865.
From biblical motifs to 'drowsy eroticism'
The Pre-Raphaelites took their name from their desire to hark back to the less formal and mechanistic, and more naturalistic and sincere, manner of painting that they associated with artists from before the Renaissance, that is, preceding Raphael and others. In the case of Solomon, he specialized first in biblical and later in classical motifs.
In the earlier phase, his works concerned such subjects as “Abram and Malkizedek” and “Ruth, Naomi and Obed,” as well as Jewish rituals, including circumcision, the marriage canopy, or the 1867 “Carrying the Scrolls of the Law.” Later, he abandoned religious themes and began reworking familiar classical set pieces. Now, his work came to evince what one source calls a “drowsy eroticism,” with frequent depictions of androgynous youths and edgy, suggestive situations.
In February 1873, the 33-year-old Solomon was arrested, together with a 60-year-old stableman named George Roberts, after the two were found in a compromising position in a public lavatory in St. Christopher’s Place, London. After being convicted of indecent exposure and an attempt to commit “buggery,” each was fined 100 pounds and sentenced to 18 months at hard labor.
Through the intervention of a relation Solomon had his prison sentence reduced to probation. But a year later, he was arrested on similar grounds in Paris; this time he spent three months in jail.
Descent into solitude
On his return to England, Solomon began a slow descent into alcoholism and penury that accompanied the rest of his life. For the most, galleries, patrons and friends shunned him. For his part, he refused to accept assistance from his family, and he sometimes sold matches on the street to survive, while living for his last two decades at the St. Giles workhouse.
Solomon did not attempt to “reform” himself and was not apologetic for his behavior. He told friends that he preferred living in a shelter because its location was “so central.” And he did not stop working.
Not able to afford canvases or oil paints, Solomon worked more with charcoal or chalk, and paper, and at times even created his works on sidewalk when necessary. His subjects became less literary and his style simpler and darker.
But, at least according to critic Neil Bartlett, this only led to more honest creations. Writing in The Guardian in 2005, Bartlett suggests that in his later work, in which Solomon returned over and over to “a handful of simple, dream-like images … either a pair of faces, gazing either at each other, or a single visage gazing deep inside itself,” the artist encountered “his true subject -- the introspective mind…. [and] something else emerges besides beauty. What matters here is scrutiny; the inward gaze of conscience…. By the end, the faces are not just androgynous, they are sexless, impersonal, living in a lonely realm of shame and hunger, of desire and dreams.”
Simeon Solomon died on August 14, 1905, at St. Giles, and he was buried at the Jewish cemetery in Willesden, London. In the years immediately following his demise, his work appeared at several exhibitions in London, before being largely forgotten for the next century. In the more tolerant atmosphere of the 1990s, with the development of gender and queer studies, Solomon was rediscovered by scholars, and in 2005-2006, a major retrospective exhibition of his work was on display in Birmingham and then at the Ben Uri Gallery, in London. A comprehensive website devoted to the study of his work is maintained by the art historians Roberto C. Ferrari and Carolyn Conroy: www.simeonsolomon.com.