Sunday, March 15, 2009

Solomon in Italy

As many readers of bklynbiblio know, I have done much of my art historical work on Simeon Solomon (1840-1905). I posted about Solomon on his birthday last October. This Anglo-Jewish artist made a career for himself among the greater Pre-Raphaelite circle, until he was largely erased from their history after being arrested for homosexual crimes in 1873. During the height of his career in the 1860s, he took three trips to Italy where he toured the sites, socialized with British and American artists and writers, learned a great deal about ancient and Renaissance art, and painted quite a few important pictures. I recently was asked to write an article about Solomon for the premiere issue of an academic electronic journal, and I'm pleased to announce that this article has just been published online and can be accessed for free. The title is "Simeon Solomon in Italy: The First Trip, 1866-1867" (click here to read it).

The bilingual (Italian-English) e-journal is called Ravenna, and it focuses on 19th-century writers and artists who had a connection to Italy. The e-journal is part of THE OSCHOLARS, a series of free journals that deals with aspects of late 19th- and early 20th-century British art, literature, and culture, with its focus on Oscar Wilde and his world. Ravenna is edited by Luca Caddia and Elisa Pizzotto.

The image you see here is one of Solomon's best works, an oil painting entitled Bacchus which he painted while he was in Rome. The picture is marked in the lower left with his monogram SS and the number 3 and 1867, signifying he painted this in March 1867. The subject is of Solomon's own design, and it is one example of various works in which he experiments with subjects that reflect aspects of his own homosexuality during a time when the expression of such feelings was unlawful. The subject is the ancient Roman god Bacchus (Dionysus in ancient Greece), the god of wine and sensual pleasures. You can see grape leaves making up a crown in his hair, and he carries grapes hanging from the thyrsus, or wooden staff, which he carries over his shoulder. In mythology, Bacchus was a youthful, bisexual god whose followers included wild animals like panthers and cougars, as well as satyrs (youths who were part-goat) and Maenads, beautiful maidens who turned into ravenous creatures when they succumbed to the intoxication of wine. Walter Pater, the doyenne of Victorian Aestheticism, saw this picture exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1867 and later noted in his essay "A Study of Dionysus" about the work, describing the figure as “the god of the bitterness of wine, ‘of things too sweet’; the sea-water of the Lesbian grape become somewhat brackish in the cup.” Because of the god's association with wine, his worship related to the release of inhibitions associated with drunkenness, including sexual licentiousness. In the play The Bacchae by the 4th-century BCE playwright Euripides, puritanical King Pentheus tries to stamp out the worship of the wine god and in turn is fooled by Bacchus into spying on the Maenads dressed as one of them. But when they discover him, they tear him apart and eat his flesh. The lesson here was never to fool with the gods. To see this painting and many other works by Solomon, go to the Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery in England, where they have the largest public collection of works by Solomon and many other Pre-Raphaelite artists, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones.

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