On this day February 11: Simeon Solomon


Simeon Solomon february 11

At the age of 32, Simeon Solomon already enjoyed renown as an artist of great promise. But his career never recovered following his arrest on February 11 1873 for attempted buggery.

The youngest son of one of London’s most respected Jewish businessmen, Simeon Solomon commenced his artistic training under his older brother as a 10-year-old. He originally took inspiration from biblical and Shakespearian themes. However, it seems, even as a youngster, his paintings provoked mixed reactions.

Critics either loved his work, hated it, or didn’t know what to think.

The horns of a dilemma

In 1858, the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent attempted a review of two of the teenager’s pen and ink drawings. The paper noted the works divided critics and attracted “the fiercest expressions of condemnation and admiration…

“We really do not know what to say…

“Full of thought and poetic imagination…  [the] drawings are calculated to leave the impartial and honest critic on the horns of a dilemma.”

After leaving his brother’s studio in 1862, Simeon’s art became more overtly erotic. He depicted scenes of gay, lesbian and bisexual love-cum-lust.

Sappho, the iconic Lesbian — and lesbian — poet

In one of his first same-sex themed drawings, Simeon depicted the iconic Lesbian — and lesbian — poet, locked in a romantic embrace with another woman. To emphasise his message, he placed two doves above the lovers. Nothing quite said love in a painting as a pair of inseparable cooing doves.

In a later sketch, The Bride, the Bridegroom, and Sad Love (below), he captured the melancholic reality of many of his contemporaries. A groom embraces his somewhat despondent bride with one arm while reaching back with the other to either hold hands with — or feel up — an excluded and obviously dejected male friend.

simeon solomon february 11
The Bride, the Bridegroom, and Sad Love

 

Despite utilising his art to convey his own exploration of sexuality in an era that criminalised sexual adventurism, Simeon Solomon enjoyed success. By clothing his art in the classicist stylings of the Greeks and Romans, he hid his message in plain sight.

Arrested, and then arrested again

But on February 11 1873, he also attempted to f_ck in plain sight. A constable caught 32-year-old Simeon and 60-year-old stableman George Roberts going for it in a public convenience. Charged with indecent exposure and attempted buggery, Simeon was fined and sentenced to 18 months in prison. An influential cousin secured his release and his family committed the artist to a private asylum hoping for a ‘cure’.

However, the following year, during a trip across the channel, a French constable caught him with a 19-year-old male sex worker in a Parisian pissoir. He spent three months in a French prison.

Although Simeon Solomon’s friends and family appear to have kept his arrests out of the papers, word spread.

The London correspondent of the Manchester Guardian alluded to an unspoken issue a few months after the London arrest.

“Illness of a serious and most distressing kind has overtaken poor Simeon Solomon some of whose works must have attracted the attention and admiration of many amongst your readers. I fear we must treat the artistic career of this promising artist as a closed book.”

Alcoholism

By illness, the article perhaps meant alcoholism. Simeon began drinking heavily after an 1870 trip to Italy with his then-boyfriend. Friends speculated that the pair experienced some extremely stressful legal difficulty in Italy relating to their sexuality.

Although he still painted, Simeon’s career went into terminal decline. He became homeless at times and resorted to begging and perhaps crime. In 1883, he and two friends faced charges of stealing art supplies from a warehouse. He died in 1905. The artist was forgotten.

But in the 1990s, scholars and enthusiasts began to scour the past for queer persons of note. Simeon Solomon was at last rediscovered.

To learn more about this unapologetically queer artist and view more of his work, check out the Simeon Solomon Research Archive.

Read more: February 10 <— On this day —> February 12

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