The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon by Sir Edward John Poynter Bt PRA RWS (1839-1919). 1890. Oil on canvas, 234.5 x 350.5 cm. Signed and dated lower right "18EJP90" in monogram. Purchased 1892 (898). The Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia.
The painting appears here courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which retains copyright; it may not be reproduced without permission of the museum.
Commentary by George P. Landow
The conception, preparatory work, painting, exhibition, and marketing of The visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon closely follows the example of Holman Hunt's The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1860), The Shadow of Death (1879) and The Triumph of the Innocents (1885). Like all of Hunt's major works, Poynter's, which had also taken many years to complete, appeared in a frame the artist himself designed as a way of introducing the spectator into the exotic time and place of re-imagined biblical history. Both men's major paintings were thus were exhibited outside the Royal Academy for, like Hunt, Poynter consigned his work to an entrepreneurial gallery owner who anticipated — invented? — those blockbuster shows at modern museums that presented the exhibition as a special event. Like Hunt's Gambart and Agnew before him, Poynter's Thomas McLean made a fortune both from the actual exhibition of the painting and from the sale of engraved reproductions of it.
The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon also follows Hunt's preparations for his major works, particularly for the The Finding of the Saviour in the Temple (1860) and The Shadow of Death (1879). Interestingly, both Hunt, the self-proclaimed outsider, and the Royal Academician who was the consummate insider, prepared for their paintings in much the same way, combining the results of nineteenth-century archeological discoveries with imaginative reconstructions of both individual objects and a scene described in the biblical text. As Angus Trumble explains, Poynter conceived his picture
within an architectural apparatus of startling complexity and truthfulness both to literary sources — the Book of Kings mentioned costly stone foundations, pillars and beams made from cedars of Lebanon, lavish ornamentation of gold and brass, and the King's magnificent ivory throne with its six steps flanked by twelve lions — and to evidence made available by archaeological excavations in Mesopotamia and other parts of the Near East. It swarmed with detail, figures and objects, even animals, that brought to life the legendary court of King Solomon, son of King David, heir to the Kingdom of Israel, builder of the Temple in Jerusalem.
The Old Testament account of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon has been interpreted and reinterpreted in the light of changing historical circumstances and values ever since it was first told. According to the Book of Kings rumours reached the Queen of Sheba concerning the fame of King Solomon. Boldly, she came to test his mind and wisdom with riddles. To her questions Solomon provided answers, meeting her symbolic challenge with all the power and prestige and authority of a Jewish king of Israel. The Queen of Sheba was overwhelmed by the impact of "all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings," such that "there was no more spirit in her."
The setting is the great reception hall in the palace of King Solomon, which the critics unanimously applauded as a tour-de-force of learned architectural reconstruction. Assyrian and Persian discoveries provided Poynter with a great deal of material with which to work on decorative details and furnishings. The lions were copied from exempla in the collections of the British Museum, as were Egyptian musical instruments and the dozens of plates, cups, bowls, and other vessels being inspected by one of peace strutting in the right foreground. Nor was Poynter's imagination constrained by the absence of genuine Israelite antiquities to incorporate into the huge composition. The ivory throne was largely his own invention, as were most of the costumes, intelligently informed by extensive historical research, a host of preparatory drawings and a scale model the architecture which Poynter had constructed so that might observe in three dimensions various effects of light with maximum precision throughout the long period in which he laboured over the painting. [p. 166]
Like Hunt, Laurence Alma-Tadema, Edwin Long, Poynter used a combination of research and imagination to create a scene from ancient life. Like these three other painters, his extraordinarily detailed rendering of a scene from the ancient Near East used the techniques and assumptions of modern realism to permit spectators to experience life in the ancient past. Unlike Hunt but like Tadema and Long, Poynter, who just wanted an accurate representation of an ancient event, had no interest in using biblical symbolism to prophecy the coming of Christianity or to turn the scene into one that existed both as an historical event and as a form of mystical experience. Such an approach, unlike Hunt's (or Millais's in his early Christ in the House of His Parents), made The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon far more accessible to late-Victorian audiences.
Despite this fundamentally different approach to depicting scriptural events, this painting shares some interesting similarities to Hunt's Finding: each painting has an outsider — Poynter's Queen of Sheba and Hunt's young Jesus — enter a lavishly rendered space within which the encounters confronts those in power and then reacts to that experience: typically, Hunt, the rebel, has the young Jesus experience an epiphany in which he first recognizes his own power whereas the conservative Poynter presents his outsider as awed, even cowed, by the establishment. Each man ends up revealing a great deal about his stance toward society and those in power.
Landow, George P. "The Exhibition Pamphlet for William Holman Hunt's The Shadow of Death" The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 47 (2007): 93-99.
Landow, George P. William Holman Hunt and Typological Symbolism. Full text New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979.
Maas, Jeremy. Gambart, Prince of the Victorian Art World. London, 1975.
Trumble, Anglus. Love and Death: Art in the Age of Queen Victoria. Exhibition catalogue. Adelaide: Art Gallery of South Australia, n.d..
Wood, Christopher. Olympian Dreamers: Victorian Classical Painters. London: Constable, 1983.
Last modified 22 June 2007