Simeon Solomon

Simeon Solomon

Queer Icon of the Month

Simeon Solomon was a prominent painter in the Aesthetic Movement in the late 19th century and depicted a “subtle” same-sex love in his art which wasn’t picked up on until he was arrested for sodomy in 1973, after which his work was collected and loved by many of those famous and involved in the gay community at the time.

Born into a prominent Jewish family in 1840 Solomon was the eighth child in a very artistic family; his was mother an artist and two of his older siblings were also acclaimed painters.

He was part of the Aesthetic movement, which was a movement valuing aesthetics over moral, political, or social themes in art. It was “Art for Art’s sake”. Solomon mainly created compositions involving figures in historical mythological settings, often with Jewish themes or depicting Jewish life. Couples and groups are posed in most of his images, suggesting same-sex relationships and based off of figures in history known as symbols for same-sex love.  

Interestingly enough, at the time, none of the art critics who applauded Solomon’s work seemed to take notice of the homosexual undertones in his images, instead only critiquing his lackadaisical and self-indulgent style.

Simeon Solomon - Queer Icon of the Month. Written by Izzy McLeod, artwork by Kiki Saito
Illustration: Kiki Saito

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, which was part of the Queer British Art Exhibition in Tate Britain back in September, is an example of one of Solomon’s pieces which depicted love between two women. Painted in 1864, this piece depicts the poet Sappho embracing fellow poet Erinna in a garden at Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. (The origin for the world lesbian comes from this tale, as Sappho’s home was the Greek island of Lesbos.)

Sappho was the author of nine books of poetry, of which only fragments survive. However, the main theme present within her work is that of love – or more specifically, the joy and frustration it can cause. In Sappho’s most complete surviving poem, she pleads with Aphrodite to help her in her relationship with another woman.

Being that Sappho and her poetry would have been known to Solomon’s contemporaries, it is a bit surprising that critics ad the time did not pick up on these homosexual undertones until Solomon himself was arrested and fined £100 in 1873 for attempted sodomy in a public urinal at Stratford Place Mews, off of Oxford Street in the West End of London. A year later he was arrested in Paris and sentenced to three months in prison. This forced Solomon to end his mainstream art career and prevented him from being able to exhibit his work.

Despite these major setbacks, Solomon was able to continue to work to some degree as he had earned a name amongst other queer figures of the time, with the likes of Oscar Wilde, John Addington Symonds, Count Eric Stenbock, and Walter Pater collecting his paintings.

Simeon Solomon - Queer Icon of the Month. Written by Izzy McLeod, artwork by Kiki Saito
Illustration: Kiki Saito

Solomon continued to paint after being admitted to St. Giles workhouse (a place where individuals who were unable to support themselves were given both employment and lodgings) in 1884.

Moon and Sleep is one of the pieces Solomon painted during his years in the workhouse. It is based off the greek myth of Endymion who was granted the gift of eternal youth by Zeus and in turn sent to sleep forever. In the painting we see Luna/Selene, the moon goddess, who was in love with Endymion, visiting him, which she did every night. Although this painting clearly depicts both Endymion and Selene, who were a heterosexual pair, it could be argued that Solomon has painted both as two androgynous characters (a theory the Tate Modern has put forth). Knowing Solomon’s history of depicting same-sex desire, it is probable that Moon and Sleep is yet another of Solomon’s painting which alludes to same-sex relationships. 

Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Solomon, who suffered with alcoholism and periods of chronic poverty and spent time in and out of St. Giles Workhouse, continued to paint, supported by both family and friends who had not abandoned him. However, his alcoholism was not without consequence. In 1905, twenty years after his first admission to St. Giles Workhouse, Solomon passed away due to complications caused by the disease. He was Buried in the Jewish Cemetery in Willesden.

Although Solomon’s life and career were marred by both personal demons and a society which was unable to understand or accept the queer community as equal to its heterosexual counterpart, Solomon continued to express queer themes in his artwork well after his arrest, expressing an unwavering commitment to both his own identity and his art. 

Sources: Simeon Solomon Research Archive, 1, 2

Although late, this piece was ended for publication for the month of  April. Article written by Izzy McLeod and Rae Tilly. Original artwork created by Kiki for YEOJA Mag. Although Solomon himself was a man, his artwork depicted both male and female same-sex relationships which is why we felt it appropriate to share his story and his work in our series Queer Icon of the Month. For more LGBT+ Articles, click here.