lthough female artists such as Rebecca Solomon were traditionally excluded by the art community, social and economic change in the later nineteenth century allowed for a small number of women artists to thrive. The democratization of art enabled a few figures from this under-represented sector to be successful, including Solomon, despite the rigidity of gender differentiation. In light of this, those fortunate female artists who were able to exhibit sometimes used their platform to campaign for acceptance in wider society. Rebecca Solomon was not just a muse for her brother’s art and an aspiring painter, but was actively engaged with social reform acts that involved women’s rights. Solomon advocated the rights of women in her art, painting scenes of social injustices, and prejudice in gender, class and ethnicity, to highlight what she, and other emerging female workers had to endure. As Linda Nochlin observes, ‘women artists [had to] conceive of themselves as potentially, if not actually, equal subjects, and must be willing to look the facts of their situation full in the face with no self-pity’ (61). Female artists were still left disgruntled by their exclusion from other aspects of society and sought to change it through the application of their art.
Solomon and Women’s Rights
However, such artists still had to battle the politics that hindered their professional careers. Many women were not permitted to attend certain art schools, nor engage with political affairs such as voting or taking on social responsibility, despite paying rent and tax. This frustration was felt by a wide range of female practitioners at the time, who keenly engaged with feminist activists and writers, such as the suffrage leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Artist Sophie Beale often wrote to Fawcett in the 1880s expressing her dismay on being unable to vote, noting: ‘I pay rent and taxes of £130 – I have nothing but what I earn by painting, teaching and writing and naturally have to work exceedingly hard … as the owner of the house … because she is a woman is not capable of voting! Imagine my feelings!’ (qtd. Cherry 142).
Social reformer and sociologist Beatrice Webb transcribed Beale’s letter in her diary, noting that it ‘contains the pith of the argument in favour of women‘s suffrage' (qtd. Cherry 143). Feminist artist Barbara Bodichon, one of Rebecca’s Pre-Raphaelite associates also argued that tax obligations were valid reasons for the enfranchisement of women, as she stated in 1866: ‘That a respectable, orderly, independent body in the State should have no voice, and no influence recognised by the law, in the election of the representatives of the people, while they are otherwise acknowledged as responsible citizens, are eligible for many public offices, and required to pay all taxes, is an anomaly which seems to require some explanation’ (Bodichon 3).
Some female artists went as far as tax resistance, with arguments for ‘no taxation without representation’ in pamphlets being released in public papers. These individuals were among the painters, sculptors and embroiderers who from the second half of the nineteenth century lent their support to the campaigns for the enfranchisement of women, with many of them contributing to campaign funds through subscriptions and the profits made from selling their artwork. Although it is not known for certain that Rebecca contributed to any campaigns, she was a member of the National Society, a group of women that pressed for women’s rights, and it is not unlikely that Solomon made a monetary donation at some point during her career.
The first suffrage petitions included women who had long engaged in feminist politics, including Solomon, Bodichon, Anna Mary Howitt and Eliza Fox; all were members of the National Society, friends and colleagues. As a society, they petitioned for the inclusion of women in politics, property, healthcare and education. In 1859, the National had launched a campaign for women to have more access to vocational education and for female students to be allowed into the Royal Art academies. Rebecca Solomon, along with Henrietta Ward, Charlotte Babb and thirty five other female artists, sculptors and embroiderers signed a letter that was published in the press calling for the admission of female students to the RA. The letter was also sent to forty male artists and associates of the Academy. The campaign attacked the elitist nature of the institution and the short-sightedness of its tutors. Harriet Martineau was enlisted by the campaigners to help publicise the campaign further. Martineau reported that: ‘By this post arrives a letter and petition from a female artist, introducing herself in a business-like way, in order to get something done about the exclusion of female artists from the Royal Academy instruction. The present is the time for the move, she says … and begs me to help it on’ (qtd. Cherry 16).
Despite the initial backlash and rejection of the campaign by The Times, the petition was eventually met with success. In 1861, Laura Herford became the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Academy schools. Along with other female artists, Herford exhibited at the institution for years. Solomon became a regular artist to be exhibited at the RA for over seventeen years, and it was due to her energetic efforts, and those of her associates, that women were being accepted by the art world as professional artists, a process that facilitated a wider inclusion in the world of work. Solomon also participated in campaigns for women’s rights outside the art world. She contributed to the 1866 women’s suffrage petition, which was the first mass petition for votes for women presented to parliament by John Stuart Mill on the 7th June. The petition campaigners circulated a list of signatories as a pamphlet, which included nearly 1500 names, including Solomon’s. Despite the failure of the campaign, Solomon’s contribution proves that she advocated for the enfranchisement of women not only in art, but in wider Victorian culture. She was also known to be a keen philanthropist, having donated to charitable causes for impoverished Jewish children. The Jewish Chronicle documented Solomon’s involvement with soup kitchens and philanthropic societies on multiple occasions during the height of her career.
Solomon and Female Independence
Not only did Solomon seek to subvert the ideals of womanhood in the working world, but she also refused to comply with what was expected of her as a young and fertile woman. Solomon never married or engaged with any of the traditional views of the female role of a devoted wife and mother. Her middle-class upbringing would have made her eligible for a decent proposal, and her family’s association with the other influential families such as the Rossettis would have provided her with the ability to secure a respectable suitor. Regardless of this, Rebecca did not marry and does not seen to have enjoyed a romantic relationship; it is possible that she engaged in a brief flirtation with Algernon Charles Swinburne, but this is probably unlikely (Ferrari 24). She had no children of her own, which was also unusual for a woman of her time, and remained a single woman.
Solomon was clearly focused on her carer as an artist. She was especially keen to market her own work and engage with the key figures of the art world. One of those figures was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The relationship between the Rossetti and Solomon families has never been discussed in depth, but the two families were known to have been familiar with each other. As an artist working in a Pre-Raphaelite idiom, Simeon must have conversed with Dante Rossetti, and these conversations extended to his sister. In one letter, for example, she asks for Rossetti for his insights into one of her pictures. She originally addressed the letter from her mother’s address at 18 John Street, but readdressed it from her studio in Fitzroy Street. ‘Dear Mr Rossetti,' she says,
If you should be in Town tomorrow I should feel greatly favoured if you could call to see my picture which leaves in the evening; the subject is the ‘Duchess of Devonshire canvassing for Fox and allowing a butcher to kiss her for a vote’. I must apologise for not having written earlier but I have been so pressed for time. Simeon told me you were good enough to say you would let him know when your picture would be again on view. I trust I may take the liberty of also availing myself of this privilege, for having promised to return to Town with my friend the day I called I had such a short time to see your most wonderful and lovely work. Mrs Lewis said that she hoped I would if an opportunity occurred present her excuses to you for having been so worried, but the cause was from having stayed longer than we thought at Mr Jones’. [qtd. Ferrari 25]
Dante’s artistic influence was so great among his colleagues that Rebecca clearly hoped that he would look at her work. Indeed, Solomon was anxious to promote herself and her work to an art community which at the time was so reluctant to accept women artists. Along with Simeon, she actively engaged in exhibiting and marketing her own work throughout Britain and on occasions accompanied Simeon abroad. Having exhibited her work in Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, she often zealously promoted her painting to her clients through her letters. Her marketing talents are also demonstrated in another letter sent by her to the writer Samuel Carter Hall, in which she says, ‘I should have much pleasure in a call from you if you have an opportunity before Tuesday evening the 2nd of April to see my Academy picture which is the incident of “The Duchess of Devonshire canvassing for Fox and allowing a butcher to kiss her for the vote.” With best to yourself and Mrs Hall trusting to have the pleasure of seeing her also to view my work’ (Ferrari 27).
Notwithstanding the stigmatisation she endured as a Jewish female artist, her works were received favourably during the peak of her career, before her brother’s untimely arrest. The Art Journal wrote, ‘Rebecca Solomon adds another name to the many who receive honour as great women of the age’ (qtd. Geffrye 22), and The Chronicle of 1876 praised her ‘masculine genius for portrait painting’ (195). Solomon’s work is also well received in the present day by art historians, with Anita Kirchen commenting that ‘her work displays a confidence in not only its style, but also its critiques of mid-nineteenth century society’. It is clear that Solomon had built the foundations of a shining artistic career, as her efforts with marketing and making a name for herself were met with public appraisal. Her efforts on promoting herself by appealing to other artists also indicate how keen she was to become a well-respected professional artist on her own account. It further indicates that Solomon did not want to engage with social norms, but instead aspired to put herself in the foreground.
Unfortunately, despite what amounted to such a promising start as a professional artist and keen social activist, and despite positive recent assessments, Rebecca has been largely erased from art and feminist history. Several factors are involved. In the first place, most of her works are either lost or in private collections, with much of her life and work still to be uncovered. One of the main reasons for this is undoubtedly the male-centric nature of the art community and nineteenth century society as a whole. Although the art community began to welcome the efforts of women artists, art historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seemingly ‘forgot’ the vast majority of female artists in favour of more established male artists who were thought to have pioneered key artistic developments. It did not help that, for a large part of history, society has been dominated by men and the patriarchal biases of the systems that conduct society. As Cherry argues, ‘Victorian art carefully screens out anything even mildly tinged with political debate and the women’s movement’ (7), suggesting that women artists were deliberately ignored because of pre-established gendered biases in art history. It was not until the later half of the twentieth century that art historians turned their interests to forgotten women artists. Some, like Solomon, have at last come to the attention of such historians.as well as feminists, with more scholarly explorations of their lives and work being written by predominantly female scholars. Rebecca Solomon is just one of many whose achievements have yet to be completely understood and acknowledged.
A complicating factor in this particular case is her brother Simeon’s arrest in 1873 for attempted sodomy. How far was that to blame for the decline of her career? However devastating this episode was, Solomon herself seems to have been determined to salvage her artistic reputation. There is mounting evidence to suggest that she continued both painting and exhibiting her work. According to the 1881 census, she was still listed as ‘artist painter’ with a studio at 182 Great Titchfield Street (Ferrari, 2005). She sporadically re-exhibited works in Manchester, Liverpool and Whitechapel until 1885, whilst also featuring in Ellen Creathorne Clayton’s English Female Artists in 1876. Nevertheless, it is apparent that she began experiencing financial hardship from 1879. The letter below, written to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, is a sad testament to the devastation caused by Simeon’s arrest and the impact it had on both the Solomons’ careers. Without expressing any personal view about her brother's sexuality (something which could hardly have been expected at that time), she addresses the embarrassment the affair caused, and makes it clear to Rossetti that she needs financial support:
I hope you will pardon the very great liberty I am taking in addressing you, but when I mention the reason I trust it may be an excuse for infringing upon your former friendship. I am sorry to say that for a very long time I have had great difficulties in a monetary way, owing much to the hard times which all artists have felt, but added to which my embarrassments have been increased through a severe family trouble and I believe this latter you know of. I am truly writing to ask if you can render me some slight temporary help, for which I would most gratefully return by any work if you required it in any prepatory assistance such as I have done for many in the profession or by any other means when able. I know of your great kindness and consideration to members of our profession and I regret very much that I should have to request such a favour, for unfortunately from circumstances you may have almost forgotten me though you often encouraged me in my work by your approval. [Ferrari]
It is not known whether Rossetti helped Rebecca with her troubles. It is also highly likely that she appealed for help from other members of the Brotherhood with whom she had previously associated, such as Millais and Swinburne. However, Dante Gabriel did comment on Simeon’s arrest in a letter to Ford Madox Brown: ‘Poor little devil! What will become of him?’ (Ferrari 75) and appeared sympathetic towards Simeon and Rebecca’s situation. But in August of the same year, Rossetti wrote to Charles Augustus Howell and Brown that Simeon had changed his name to ‘Signor Orazio Buggioni’, punning on the word ‘buggery’ (Ferrari, 2005, p75). Therefore it is likely that Rossetti chose not to get involved, nor help Rebecca and the Solomon family. Dante’s brother, William Michael Rossetti similarly chose to cut ties with the Solomons, as shown in a letter of his where he reluctantly discusses Simeon’s arrest, ‘After certain incidents in his life I dropped him and wish to never hear or think any more about him’ (Ferrari 75). Neither of the Solomons deaths’ were recorded in Rossetti’s diaries, nor was any further comment made.
Despite the heartbreak and desperation of these days, Rebecca still endeavoured to market her paintings and services. Her aptitude for promoting herself established her work as a regular feature in public exhibitions. However, it was inevitable that she should blame her financial struggle on Simeon and his arrest — that ‘severe family trouble’ (Ferrari 74) which at the time completely destroyed the Solomon family reputation.
Following this sad episode, Rebecca was said to have developed an ‘errant nature and came to disaster’ (Wood), although there is no clear evidence to confirm this, nor any mention of it on her death certificate. Unfortunately, her life came to a tragic end in 1886 from injuries sustained after being run over by a hansom cab on Euston Road. It has also been said that, at the time, she was living alone, although she lived in close proximity to Simeon and her mother. It appears that no periodicals reported her death or published any obituary.
Rebecca Solomon was one of those few spirited Victorian women who, despite the prejudice against female artists, pursued their ambitions to thrive in the professional art world of their time. Within the limitations imposed on her by her own particularly difficult circumstances, she achieved a measure of success which is only now being fully recognised. Such women sometimes appeared in the Brotherhood’s paintings as representatives of contemporary ideals of Victorian femininity. But Solomon also deserves recognition for her active bid to transcend social boundaries, whether of gender, class and ethnicity, and in so doing to interrogate the prejudices surrounding them.
Abrams, L (2009) ‘Ideals of Womanhood in Victorian Britain’, BBC History. Online at http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/trail/victorian_britain/women_home/ideals_womanhood_01.shtml [Accessed 27/06/21], p. 9.
Bodichon, B. Reasons for and against the Enfranchisement of Women. London: National Society for Women’s Suffrage, 1872.
Cherry, Deborah. Beyond the Frame: Feminism and Visual Culture, Britain 1850 –1900. London: Routledge, 2012.
Ferrari, R. ‘Rebecca Solomon, Pre-Raphaelite Sister.’ Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society 12 (Summer 2004): 23–36.
Ferrari, Roberto. ‘To the Rossettis, From the Solomons: Five Unpublished Letters’ Notes and Queries 52:1 (March 2005): 74–75.
Halliday, A. ‘“Mothers.”' All the Year Round. 1865. Online at http://djo.org.uk/all-the-year-round/volume-xiv/page-157.html [Accessed 27/06/21] p. 76.
Kirchen, A. ‘Rebecca Solomon.’ Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopaedia. Online version, accessed 04/11/20.
Nochlin, Linda. Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?. London: Thames & Hudson, 2020.
Solomon: A Family of Painters. London: Geffrye Museum, 1985.
Thompson, N. Reviewing Sex: Gender and the Reception of Victorian Novels. New York: New York University Press, 1988. 123.
Wood, Christopher. The Blessed Damozel: Women and Children in Victorian Art. London: Christopher Wood Gallery, 1980.
Created 14 September 2021;updated 14 September 2022