Sunday, August 14, 2016

MWA XLI: Solomon's Song

If it were not for Dinah Roe's post on Twitter, I might have missed today as the 111th anniversary of Simeon Solomon's death in London. Tragically, he died after living in and out of workhouses and on the street, impoverished and in a destitute state, on August 14, 1905, despite having at one time tremendous success as an artist. As discussed and noted on this blog and on the Simeon Solomon Research Archive that I co-manage with Carolyn Conroy, it was after Solomon's arrest in 1873 for homosexual crimes that his public career largely ended, although he did have ups and downs over subsequent decades depending on his health and the support he was receiving from family and friends. A report of the inquest into his death appeared in the Times on August 18, 1905, and reads as follows:
Mr. Walter Schroder held an inquest at St. Giles's Coroner's Court yesterday regarding the death of Simeon Solomon, aged 63, bachelor, an oil-painter, who was described as of the pre-Raphaelite school and at one time an associate of Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Solomon, according to his cousin, Mr. G. J. Nathan, of late years had led an intemperate and irregular life. The witness last saw him alive in May, when he gave him an outfit of clothes and money. He also gave him a commission for a drawing which was never executed. People highly placed in society would have liked him to paint pictures for them, but he could not be relied on to execute any commission. Other evidence showed that Solomon had been "off and on" an inmate of St. Giles's Workhouse during the past five years. On Wednesday, May 24 last, after the visit to his cousin, he was found lying on the footpath in Great Turnstile, High Holborn. He complained of illness and was conveyed to King's College Hospital, whence he was transferred to St. Giles's Workhouse. He was then suffering from bronchitis and alcoholism. He remained in the house, and on Monday morning last suddenly expired in the dining hall from, as Dr. A. C. Allen, the medical officer testified, heart failure consequent on aortic disease of that organ and other ailments. The jury returned a verdict accordingly. It was stated that a picture by the deceased recently sold at Christie's realised 250 guineas and that in former days several of his paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy.
It's interesting that the author laments that a picture by him had sold recently for 250 guineas at Christie's, considering just last month at the same Christie's, a record was broken when the picture above by Solomon sold for £182,500 ($242,500), the highest price ever paid for one of his pictures. Compared to his contemporaries, the aforementioned Rossetti and Burne-Jones whose works now sell in the millions of pounds, this amount is still a small sum. Nevertheless, considering Solomon was still barely acknowledged as a significant figure in the Pre-Raphaelite circle just fifteen years ago, this shift in the sale of his work is an incredible change in the market and appreciation for his work.

Painted in 1868, measuring 17 x 25 in., entitled A Prelude by Bach, Solomon's watercolor was first exhibited at the Dudley Gallery in London in February 1869 under the more generic title of A Song. It was largely disregarded by critics, the Times dismissing it as "a bevy of young men and maidens in the Watteauish costumes ... grouped round a lady at the piano," suggesting a subject that was either in the spirit of an 18th-century a fete galante or had randy Regency tendencies. Whatever the costumes, the picture seemed to be overtly sensual in its presentiment and lacking in the moral meaning preferred by those critics interested in mid-century Victorian narrative paintings. (To be clear, she is playing a harpsichord, not a piano, a perhaps important historical point if she is playing a Prelude by J.S. Bach.) 

A Song was exhibited with Solomon's (now-lost) Sacramentum Amoris and A Saint of the Eastern Church (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, image right), single-figure works that respectively celebrated pagan and Christian rituals, all done in watercolors, a medium with which most always agree Solomon excelled. Both the Saint and the Amoris carry myrtle branches, as does the boy in A Song. Clearly this suggests there was intent to unite them as a trinity with meaning, but that understanding now seems to be lost. Indeed, the problem with A Song at the time of its exhibition was its lack of meaning, either grouped with the other two pictures or on its own. The 1860s were a time of transition in British art, as the radical medievalism and social consciousness of the Pre-Raphaelites evolved into the luscious Venetian colors and subjects of the Aesthetic Movement, subjects and meaning typically dissipated in favor of sheer expressions of beauty. Another key shift in this transition was the merging of the arts so that one form could express that of another, i.e. art with music, poetry with art, music with poetry. This stylistic development appeared not just in Solomon's pictures but also those of his colleagues and friends Rossetti, Albert Moore, and J.A.M. Whistler (think Symphony in White, No. 1). These pictures blended the arts, poetry/music/painting united in subject-less works. Whistler arguably succeeded in this goal more than his colleagues and friends, to the point that he took the critic John Ruskin to court for libel and defended what this aesthetic sensibility actually meant. And yet, after all this time, viewers today still seek out meaning in pictures such as these.

In the 2005 Solomon exhibition catalogueColin Cruise argued that A Prelude by Bach echoed the representation of figures in Botticelli's Primavera, with the lady at the harpsichord substituting Venus, and the boy on the left representing Mercury, holding instead of the caduceus a myrtle branch. I'm not convinced this interpretation is completely accurate, because Solomon made a number of pictures throughout his career depicting groups of people arranged as if they were part of a bas-relief, and I'm not sure this one is any different from the others that it is less or more like the Primavera. That said, I do agree with Cruise that the depiction of the two women embracing in Solomon's picture conveys another instance of his exploration of lesbian desire, something he began exploring at least five years earlier with his pictures of Sappho. I would go even further and say that almost all of the couplings depicted in this work exhibit a sense of decadent sensuality. Their lassitude suggests post-coital intercourse, as if listening to the Prelude has somehow satiated their sexual drives. The power of music indeed.

This picture is a simple work upon first seeing it, but gazing at it in more depth, and attempting to read the imagery, symbols, and pairings more closely, it leads to that deeper enigma that one finds in so many of Solomon's pictures. His was a coded language all his own, and one wonders if we will ever be able to fully comprehend all the meaning in his works. Sadly, he died 111 years ago today taking most, if not all, of those secrets with him to his grave.

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