In response to recent trends, the following urges a more art-historical approach to Rebecca Solomon's work, and more attention to the paintings themselves. The list of further reading has been added by our editors. — JB
he personal lives, and the personalities, of most Victorian artists are opaque to the 21st-century observer. The raw information and terse intimacies of George Price Boyce’s diaries are rare, and even the more self-conscious accounts offered in William Frith’s My Autobiography] or Henrietta Ward’s Memories of Ninety Years are few and far between. Furthermore, since the majority of artists painting in Victorian Britain were producing objects for sale to an increasingly diverse buying public rather than fashioning expressions of a personal vision for the connoisseur, individual attitudes and agendas cannot reliably be read out of specific works of art, nor even perhaps from entire bodies of work: following the market and self-expression were largely not co-terminous. The major figures of the period, of whose existence and activities every detail has been passed down to posterity, should not then be seen as typical but are, rather, a misleading exception to these general truths.
Rebecca Solomon was by no means one of the leading practitioners of her day and, like so many women of her generation, was occluded from sight by her more acclaimed male relatives (brothers Abraham and Simeon), in life and thereafter. To read her works in light of a character sketch that must be in large part speculative is therefore likely to be misleading, albeit a tempting project.
Of course, the bid for a romantic narrative should not override any aspect of what is known: it is not true, for example, that Solomon’s death certificate is unknown. And, while biography has a part to play in drawing out the meanings of mid-Victorian painting, the 21st-century inquirer needs to know what other artists were producing at the time in order to explain what Solomon herself was doing. The same could be said of attending to what Victorian viewers said of these works – a primary resource readily available on the Simeon Solomon Research Archive site. An appropriate exemplar can be found in the redoubtable Susan Casteras, a major (and feminist) contributor to the rehabilitation of Victorian painting in scholarly and curatorial opinion. In particular, Casteras’s 1987 Images of Victorian Womanhood (still invaluable despite the passing of the years) addresses Solomon amongst many of her contemporaries. The work of other art historians (Deborah Cherry’s is of the most obvious value) and Victorianists such as Sally Mitchell, while also relevant and helpful, cannot replace the close and prolonged study of mid-century paintings that Casteras models. It is there, and in the context in which these works were made, rather than in sometimes naive and melodramatic speculation about Solomon’s character and personal experience, that the answers to the essential art-historical question, ‘Why does this painting look like it does?’ are to be found. Such study will reveal that, while some of this artist’s actions and choices may well have been singular, others were also simply typical.
To take as an example the paired canvases The Idle and Industrious Students or Reading for Pluck and Reading for Honours (1859), it is essential in appraising it to bear in mind that Rebecca Solomon was formed by her elder brother, a mainstream success, not her now more fashionable younger one, a risk-taking bohemian. Thus Judith Butler’s sexual politics bring less of an understanding of this pair of paintings than a close examination of Abraham Solomon’s work. The young woman attracting the attention of the idle student is a flower-seller, a figure used in Victorian genre painting both as a street ‘type’ and as a trope in the spectrum of Victorian womanhood. As in many mid-century paintings, space is a key element in use here: how does the fact that the working woman is outside the student’s room, leaning in, while the Dora-ish young lady is close beside the diligent student in some kind of bower, simpering, affect (or indeed effect) the paintings’ narrative? What work do the carefully disposed accessories (cigar, newspaper, wallet, dog, etc) do in establishing character in this moral tale?
In pursuing the meanings of specific paintings, it is important to draw back a little and ask, why some of Solomon’s works were so much more successful than others; why they were sometimes called vulgar and in poor taste; why her body of work is so diverse. Close and careful analysis of primary materials, diligent attention to voices of the time, and a sensitivity to the function of painting in Victorian culture will be our best tools in this endeavour. The answers to these questions will not only illuminate the significance of any particular painting by Rebecca Solomon but also show that the value of her work and career lies as much in what they tell about the art-world in which they occurred as about the maker herself.
Casteras, Susan. Images of Victorian Womanhood in English Art. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1987.
Cherry, Deborah. Painting Women: Victorian Women Artists. London: Routledge, 1993.
Ferrari, Roberto C. “Rebecca Solomon, Pre-Raphaelite Sister.” The Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society. 12:2 (Summer 2004): 23-36.
Marsh, Jan and Pamela Gerrish Nunn. Pre-Raphaelite Women Artists. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1999.
Mitchell, Sally. Daily Life in Victorian England. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2012.
Nunn, Pamela Gerrish. "Rebecca Solomon." Solomon, a Family of Painters: Abraham Solomon (1823-1862), Rebecca Solomon (1832- 1886), Simeon Solomon (1840-1905). London: Inner London Education Authority, 1985.
_____. “Rebecca Solomon’s A Young Teacher.” The Burlington Magazine. 130 (October 1988): 769-770.
_____. Victorian Women Artists. London: Women’s Press, 1987.
"Rebecca & Abraham Solomon." Simeon Solomon Research Archive. An invaluable resource. See Dr Roberto C. Ferrari's biography of Rebecca Solomon; the separate list of secondary sources offers many full-text links to contemporary reviews as well as details of recent criticism.
Created 3 March 2022