Dignity Restored to a Defamed Artist
BY Frank Vigon
February 24 2014 5:00 AM ET
Alternative memorial artist Joss Nankoo was commisioned to create a new memorial for the grave site of gay pre-Raphaelite artist Simeon Solomon, whose reputation had fallen into disrepute. He was interested in Solomon's story and passed along the information for the article below by Frank Vigon. — The Editors
I first came upon Simeon Solomon when I was preparing a talk on the rarity of Jewish artists throughout history. On researching his work further, my mind was blown by the breadth of his talent and how different it was from the one piece of work he is most known by. Actually, this is a misstatement of the fact; it is his picture that is known and his name is almost completely forgotten, unfamiliar to the Jewish community and almost wiped out from the history of art.
At left is the picture that has become most familiar to the Jewish world. It figures on numerous greeting cards found in Judaica shops all over the world. But if you asked anyone who the artist was who painted this picture of the rabbi lovingly holding the Torah scrolls, most would shrug their shoulders saying they were sorry that they didn’t know.
Solomon was born into a family of artists in London in 1840. His father was the second Jew to be made freeman of London, and his mother was an artist, as were two of his siblings, his brother Abraham and his sister Rebecca. From an early age he showed clear artistic talent, sketching many images from Jewish culture and Jewish biblical themes.
He was highly gifted and exhibited in galleries all over London in the early stages of his life. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 18. He was introduced at a very early age, in the 1850s, to the Pre-Raphaelite group and was very much connected to the second phase of this famous group’s development. The key period of his work came in in the 1860s and early 1870s.
At right: Simeon Solomon by David Wilkie Wynfield
His skills were acknowledged by the group, which included Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Edward Burne-Jones. By far the youngest of the group, he was nevertheless popular in Victorian England.
His work moved through a number of phases, mythological, classical, and symbolist. He was very much at the center of the Pre-Raphaelite group, so much so that Burne-Jones said of him, “Solomon was the greatest artist of us all.” He experimented with several styles, and in his work can be seen glimpses of expression and style that were to be made famous by artists such as Lord Frederic Leighton, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Aubrey Beardsley, Gustav Klimt, and even Marc Chagall. He was a “shape-shifter,” and at the height of his fame reproductions of his works were to be found in many Victorian homes.
But his is a tragic story. He becomes acquainted with the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, whose hedonistic and scandalous lifestyle led him astray. In the hothouse of the avant-garde circles in which he moves, Solomon finds himself on the margins of society both as a Jew and a homosexual. A significant body of his work is often seen as having homoerotic undertones; some of his less supportive critics hint heavily at this. Nevertheless, his success as an artist compensates for the two potential causes of exclusion. Solomon’s work continues to be exhibited and praised until 1873.
In that year Solomon is arrested with another man in a public toilet off Oxford Street, prosecuted, and found guilty. The scandal destroys his reputation, his career and his personality. The vast majority of his friends and associates drop him. The galleries that have exhibited his work every year since he was 18 refuse to show his work. At the age of 33 he drifts into poverty and alcoholism and becomes an outcast. He continues to work and still produces some very fine pieces, including some excellent portraits, some work on Christian themes, and a significant number of symbolist paintings.
He drifts in and out of St. Giles workhouse, where he continues to paint, but his output is unreliable due to his bouts of alcoholism. He spends the rest of his life in a downward spiral, still producing work but shunned. He dies in St. Giles workhouse in 1905. The tragedy is that he was such a gifted and talented artist whose craft both as an artist and poet ought to have earned him a more prominent place within the Pre-Raphaelite group. The writer Arthur Symons in 1906, a year after Solomon’s death, was quite clear that if Solomon had not been arrested, he would have rivaled Burne-Jones.
This is one of our most significant Jewish painters. His work deserves a reappraisal and certainly his memory deserves honouring. His work on Jewish themes goes seen but unacknowledged in many Jewish publications. His later work as a mainstream artist ought to be celebrated as the work of an artist who origins are strongly Jewish and who made a major impact on 19th-century art. The Art Journal of 1868 wrote of him “Unmistakeable genius, only run a little mad.”
At left is a picture of his grave in Willesden Jewish Cemetery in the London borough of Brent as it now lies: abandoned, fallen tombstone with the writing effaced by time. For the first phase of the campaign, the restoration of his grave, I have managed to raise £3,900 and only need another £300 ($500). This will reestablish the headstone, lay a body stone, and affix a plaque that will read “Simeon Solomon, Pre-Raphaelite artist, 1840–1905. This stone reestablished by subscription in recognition of his unique gifts and talent.”
On honoring the dead, a Chabad site says the following: “Care for the grave site: Make sure it does not become overgrown with weeds or fall into disrepair.” I believe the Jewish community as whole ought to perform this mitzvah to mark the grave of one of our major Jewish painters.
Above: Joss Nankoo creates the new monument.
The current goal is to raise £50,000 to find a Ph.D. scholarship in Simeon Solomon's name.
I can be contacted via [email protected] for further information and to arrange contributions.
Click through for a selection of Solomon's work >>>