On June 11, 1881, the painter Solomon Alexander Hart, 19th-century Britain’s most successful Jewish painter, died, at the age of 75. Hart was the first Jewish artist to be accepted into the prestigious Royal Academy of Arts, and his paintings and engravings continue to be displayed at leading galleries in Britain and elsewhere to this day.
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Solomon Hart was born in Plymouth, England, in April 1806. His father, Samuel Hart, was an engraver and a Hebrew teacher. His mother died when Solomon was young, and his father remarried.
Solomon briefly attended school in nearby Exeter, but because primary schools in Plymouth were not open to Jews he had to be educated privately, and was tutored for five years by a Unitarian minister.
In 1820 the Harts moved to London. Samuel sought to apprentice Solomon to an engraver, but the family could not afford to pay the standard “premium” for the arrangement. Instead, he began training himself by drawing copies of classical marbles in the British Museum, while taking jobs that relied on his artistic skills, including coloring theatrical prints and copying the paintings of old masters onto pieces of ivory.
In August 1823, Hart was admitted to Royal Academy Schools, Britain’s oldest art school and a part of the Royal Academy of Arts. At the end of the three-year study program he exhibited a miniature painting of his father at the Academy.
Connecting the English to the Jewish
Many of Hart’s early works had Jewish themes, including a painting exhibited in 1830 at the Society of British Artists, “Interior of a Polish Synagogue [in Amsterdam] at the Moment when the Manuscript of the Law Is Elevated.” However, as Hart wrote in his “Remiscences,” he wanted to avoid “the imputation of being the painter of merely religious ceremony,” and desired rather to express “something of a more definite character in the expression of human emotion and strong dramatic action.”
Thus, he took on works with historical or literary subjects that were typically British, while continuing to do occasional Jewish-oriented ones. The website of the Jewish Museum, New York, notes that Hart also found ways to connect the English and the Jewish, for example in his “The Conference of Menasseh ben Israel and Oliver Cromwell” (1878). He also painted several canvases depicting Jewish characters from English literature, specifically from “Ivanhoe” and “The Merchant of Venice.”
In 1835, Hart was elected an associate member of the Royal Academy, and five years later, a full fellow of the academy, on the basis of his painting “Lady Jane Grey at the Place of Her Execution on Tower Hill,” on which he labored for a year.
In 1841-42, Hart traveled to Italy — possibly at the suggestion of his friend and neighbor, the painter David Roberts — with the aim of publishing his studies of historical sites. The book never came about, but much of what he saw made its way into future canvases, including his 1850 “The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law,” depicting a Simhat Torah celebration at the synagogue at Leghorn (Livorno).
Hart was professor of painting at the Royal Academy from 1854 to 1863, as well as the institution’s librarian from 1864 to 1881. (When he died, a tribute in The Athenaeum, praised him for having “found chaos and left a library.”)
Hart remained an observant Jew throughout his life. He was known for his sense of humor and, according to the Jewish Chronicle, was a “confirmed punster.” He never married, and as he grew older he gradually lost his eyesight, although he continued painting, to the detriment of his reputation.
He died on June 11,1881 and was buried in Brompton Jewish Cemetery.