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How relevant is Simeon Solomon’s sexuality in interpreting his work from the 1860s and 70s? It is highly revealing to read Simeon Solomon’s work through his sexuality. Though it is no easy matter to separate the sexuality in his art from his other cultural and artistic affiliations, often to do so would be to simplify matters. This interpretation also requires caution as it is reductive; he is so often viewed as the gay Pre-Raphaelite his talent is often overlooked.
Until 1861 sodomy had been punishable by death, we are now aware that a sentence of hard labour was often near fatal, but psychologically this may have been liberating. From 1858 to 1872 Solomon produced fifteen oil paintings for the Royal Academy, and thirty-five watercolours for the Dudley. These works did not, as Bence-Jones contended, have ‘homosexual overtones”, Elizabeth Prettejohn is closer to the mark in considering these heavily coded images.
In 1873 Solomon was caught with a man in a public bathroom and charged with ‘buggery against the order of nature’, his public commissions ended and he became an alcoholic.
His disgrace was common knowledge despite appearing in no newspapers. When in 1911 L. M. Wilson stumbled upon a room full of Solomon drawings it is unlikely that their owner was unaware of Solomon’s sexuality, but he explained the tragic nature of the images and artist as a result of a broken off engagement to a beautiful woman.
A lack of knowledge, and reluctance to talk about Solomon’s sexuality is apparent in much of the historiography until Lionel Lambourne’s work of the 1970s.
’ Solomon has since come to be reclaimed as an aesthetic queer icon comparable to, albeit not as wellknown as, Oscar Wilde. It is thought Solomon’s artistic group, the aesthetes, were aware of his sexuality, though they turned on him to preserve their reputations upon the scandal of 1873.
This openness extended to the influence their art had on each other’s. It is well known that the sensual aspect of Solomon’s young men is much like that of Rossetti’s contemporary works. Barringer is not alone in suggesting this is an adaption of the Rossettian female type to the male.’ Cruise highlighted specifically the ‘remoteness of gazeʼ shared between Solomon and Rossetti’s figures, suggesting an internal world.
Solomon’s men were surrounded with accessories like Rossetti’s and Burne-Jones’ women, Solomon may have even originated the androgyny seen later in Burne-Jones’ works. Solomon also shared models with Rossetti and Burne-Jones, including the male model Gaetano Meo. Though Solomon was somewhat smitten with him, even the other artists could admit his beauty.
In Solomon’s poem A Vision of Love (1871) his soul appeared to him as a nude man. A Vision of Love has strong parallel’s with Rossetti’s poem and artistic manifesto Hand and Soul, in which the protagonist’s soul appeared to him as a sensualised woman. Solomon was aware of Hand and Soul as he provided an illustration for it. Solomon’s Bacchus (1867) watercolour illustrates a William Morris poem considered particularly sensuous.
It is not unusual for an aesthete or Pre-Raphaelite artist to be subject to sexual interpretations, Julian Treuherz’s analysis of sexuality in early Pre-Raphaelite’s subjects was that they were not precisely autobiographical but ‘reflect a preoccupation in the artists’ personal lives with the morality of illicit sexual relationships.’ A similar case can be made for Solomon, that his works were not autobiographical but preoccupied within his own brand of illicit sexuality.
The aesthetic movement had moved even further into the realm of sensuality, normalising the sensuous presentation of his figures. In 1870 several Solomon works at the Dudley gallery where attacked in The Times on the charge that They correspond in painting to some of the most objectionable performances of Mr. Swinburne in poetry.’ This was the beginning of a long tradition of historiographical emphasis on their close relationship, and Swinburne’s influence on Solomon’s art. Julian Treuherz characterised Swinburne and Solomon as the sexual outsiders.’
E. Cooper even compared their closeness to lovers; but Swinburne’s deviancy was sadomasochism, not homosexuality and he introduced Solomon to the works of the Marquis de Sade. Solomon produced a painting of de Sade’s Juliette in 1863. A homosexual slant on sadomasochism is clear in Solomon works such as The flagellation rites of the cult of Diana Orthia (1865). The brutal subject of Habet! was seen by many critics to be both an organic part of the classical subject, and sufficiently morally condemned by the woman fainting.
It was however also heavily influenced by Swinburne’s poem Faustine, while it implied a wounded male nude without actually presenting such a taboo subject. In 1859 a major challenge had been posed to existing ideas of beauty, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species suggested that beauty wasn’t derived from an ideal but a practical consideration for procreation. Many artists and scholars embraced this to move beyond traditional symbolism, but it posed a problem for ‘non-procreative’ ideals of beauty.
A popular theory at the time, particularly among gay intellectuals, was that homosexuals were a third gender. Solomon may have been influenced by these ideas in pioneering an androgynous ideal of beauty. He believed that by combining the aspects from the male and female he could transcend them to a more spiritual state. His fascination with spiritual beauty may have been a way around ideas of natural beauty.
In 1870, Solomon had attended the trial of the crossdressing male prostitutes Ernst Boulton and Frederick William Park, taking them out for tea afterwards. Many of his androgynous figures such as Heliogabalus, High Priest of the Sun (1868), and his Bacchus images were men with little known reputations for cross dressing among classicists.
In this case classicism allowed his interest in the duality of gender to manifest itself. There are other works where androgyny is the result of him painting women as rather masculine. Solomon’s work dealt with a duality beyond that of male and female, one of spirituality and sensuality. A contemporary review of Heliogabalus praised its successful merging of his contrary roles as emperor and priest, worldly and otherworldly.
Heliogabalus also had a reputation as a deranged emperor of taboo sexual excesses, meaning it was also a merging of fleshly deviation with spiritual feeling. Pater complimented Solomon’s Bacchus for capturing the duality of the figure, his joy at the fleshly pleasures, and sorrow of his excesses. The joy is sensuous, fleshly, seen in the gold tones of the skin while the sorrow is less physical a spiritual pain from forbidden excesses. Cruise argues that Solomon was fashioning a new, priestly or spiritual masculinity with fleshly sensuous aspects.
Kleeblatt, discussing the utilisation of Jewishness in Solomon’s art, chose instead to term it ‘otherness’ perhaps suggesting some awareness that her analysis could also apply to his sexual culture
Wilton, who also elected for the term ‘otherness’, divided Solomon’s career into two stages. One of Hebraic ‘otherness’, and a later one of homosexual ‘otherness’ The implication of Kleeblatt’s wording, that the two categories of ‘otherness’ were not discrete, is closer to the mark. Homoerotic themes can be found in Solomon’s Hebraic works as well as the, often later, classical ones.
Barringer deemed Solomon’s fleshly Bacchic images the sensual foil of a muscular Christ, but The Carrying of the Scrolls of the Law (1867) resembles Bacchus in physical type and is unquestionably a Hebraic image. Wilton also argued that Solomon’s access to Hebraic models allowed him to pioneer a Semitic beauty for them.31 As an aspect of physical appearance this is not neatly separable from his work towards an androgynous or masculine beauty.
Something that has been politely overlooked in much of the literature is the phallic imagery in Solomon’s art. Take the above example of The Marriage Ceremony in which it was not only the intense gaze, and role as outsiders that connected the youth and his suitor. Both of them also gripped tent poles in front of them.
This is a cruder imagery than that Robert C Ferrari highlighted. Ferrari pointed to the thyrus staff held by Bacchus in Solomon’s watercolour as homoerotic phallic imagery. He was of course completely correct given the male nude. Yet, a phallic thyrus staff also made sense as a fertility symbol in classical works without a homoerotic meaning.
A more blatant example appeared in Carrying the Scrolls of the Law, where the scrolls were rotated so only one was visible, giving them a phallic presentation. Alternatively, the scrolls are the right size to be seen as the chest of a lover on which the subject lays his head. The case to interpret Solomon’s work through his sexuality is persuasive and enlightening, it should however come with a caution.
Queer theory tends to emphasize that collective identities should not be used to define individuals. By understanding his work through his sexual identity, cultural and religious affiliations, and artistic creed there is a risk of being reductive. This essay does emphasize that these categories were rarely discrete, something that hopefully encourages a more complex and holistic understanding of Solomon.
It is also noteworthy that homoerotic interpretations of Solomon’s art were not available to the majority of Solomon’s contemporaries, as with the brutality of Habet, this was a theme easily masked in a classical guise. Solomon’s works were sometimes criticised for ‘unmanly affectation’, and Colin Cruise among others has argued that the medical language used in criticisms of Solomon may imply knowledge of his moral disorder.
This overlooks the wider critical context in which aesthetes were often criticised as unhealthy or feminine. One particular noteworthy contemporary review from The Pall Mall Gazette is of a Solomon drawing of naked ancient Greek men at a gymnasium, all the reviewer sees in this is ‘an admirable study of boyish strength and playfulness.’
The obliviousness is almost comical, yet a young understandable when considered next to a young Millais painting naked Greek wrestlers. In the rush to reclaim Solomon as a queer icon it is easy to overlook his position as a highly talented Pre-Raphaelite. Many writers have highlighted that among the Pre-Raphaelites he was the best at drawing and that Burne-Jones almost certainly thought of him as the best among them.
Even Robert Buchanon, in The Fleshly School of Poetry, his scathing attack on the aesthetic movement, admitted Solomon had artistic genius and took umbrage primarily at it being wasted. Simeon Solomon’s works can be approached effectively through his sexuality, and also through the sexual culture that involved him in.
However, to get a full picture this approach should not be separated from the other influences he was under. His sexuality does seem to be the most revealing way in which to approach him, compared to these others. It distinguishes him as an artist, but at the same time it should not be used as an excuse to overlook his remarkable artistic talents and role as a leading Pre-Raphaelite.
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