Simeon Solomon was one of the most distinguished painters of Victorian England's Aesthetic movement. Together with Swinburne, Rossetti, and Burne-Jones, Solomon delighted in the passionate and sensual aspects of life. Although these Pre-Raphaelites did not resist allegorical and classical motifs, they nonetheless led inspired those who held the theory of 'L'Art pour L'Art,' or 'Art for Art's Sake.' First invented by French poet, novelist and critic, Theophile Gautier (1811-1872), the theory denied that art could, or should, be in anyway useful (10).
Two Acolytes Censing, Pentecost (1863) remains one of Solomon's best known works since it depicts a highly sensual ritual. Nothing indicates that the painting refers to a literary work or has an allegorical meaning; instead, the viewer is supposed to share Solomon's aesthetic appreciation of church ritual. Even though he was Jewish, Solomon, like other Aesthetics, was deeply drawn to ornate High Church and Roman Catholic ceremonies featuring narcissus and arum lilies banked before the alter, candles, altar lights, clouds of incense dispensed from censers, and elaborate dress (14).
Two Acolytes captures the best of those opulent High Church features. Here we see two boys dressed in brightly colored robes. The left acolyte swings a censer fumigating incense. Atop the altar stand a lavishly gilded candlestick and a vase of white lilies. Solomon painted with broad strokes that favor color-- gold, white, and red--over precise detail. It is as if we are sitting among the congregation, caring not so much for specific minutia but plenty for ceremony as a whole. We care less about the robes' embroidery than their deep glowing color, less about the censer's craftsmanship than the pungent fumes it emits.
Two Acolytes was meant to be beautiful not useful. We do not learn a lesson or gaze introspectively upon the boys. The painting is purely aesthetic, although whether or not we like it is another question.
1. What are the drawbacks of 'Art for Art's Sake'? Are we inclined to value Solomon's paintings less because they are simply aesthetic and have no great message or lesson?
2. Are Solomon's paintings any more aesthetic or sensual than a painting like Alma-Tadema's A Roman Emperor AD 41 (1872)? Alma-Tadema painted with exquisite detail, lending prominence to clothing, drapery, and overall color, yet we do not consider him an Aesthetic. Do you think the title Aesthetic is misleading or not?
3. If Solomon had painted the same scene with ornate detail how might our impressions change? Do you think it would add or subtract from the painting's qualities? Send it tumbling from the upper echelon of the Aesthetic cannon?
4. The left acolyte seems to be whispering to his companion. Does this complicate the sensual nature of the painting at all?
Lamborne, Lionel. The Aesthetic Movement . London: Phaidon, 1996.
Last modified 23 April 2007