Alex Round, Birmingham City University
Rebecca Solomon, born on September 26, 1832, was the seventh of eight children from the middle-class Solomon family. Her mother, Kate Levy Solomon, was an amateur artist, and her father, Michael Meyer Solomon, was a merchant and the first Jewish man to receive the Freedom of the City of London.1 More recently, Rebecca Solomon’s artistic efforts have been overshadowed by her artist brothers Abraham and Simeon, and so has her role as a model and copier for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. She produced copies for many esteemed artists of the period, including the Pre-Raphaelite co-founder, John Everett Millais. Solomon helped Millais’ produce his work Christ in the House of his Parents (1850) when she shared his studio. As Millais inscribed on the painting’s reverse, this work was “[a]ssisted and copied by Miss Solomon, and all the heads and a great part of the background painted by me – J.E Millais” (Errington 37). However, Solomon’s contribution to the critically acclaimed painting has not been acknowledged in scholarship.
Solomon especially endured professional hardships as a Jewish artist. The widespread existence of anti-Semitism still pervaded every aspect of nineteenth-century British society. Despite the waning of anti-Semitism in Victorian England following the enforcement of the Jews Relief Act in 1858, which removed barriers to Jews interested in politics, Britain was largely unwilling to embrace “foreign” cultures. Jews were gradually granted more freedoms, such as the right to vote in 1835, positions in Parliament in 1858, and eligibility for university fellowships in 1871, but most Britons continued to “observ[e] their Christian Principles,” meaning they looked down upon Jews socially (Verhoeven 50).
Solomon, more so than her artistic brothers, suffered prejudice due to her race and her gender. According to Nadia Valman, “English people generally … were unacquainted with [Jewish] history, religion and customs” (91). Therefore, they were reluctant to accept the cultural symbolism of Jewish artwork, let alone the work of a Jewish woman artist. Regardless, Solomon remained proud of and loyal to her Jewish heritage. Monica Bohm-Duchen states that Solomon’s father’s prosperity, her mother’s artistic encouragement, and her artistic brothers’ successful careers pushed her to pursue her dreams of becoming an artist. She therefore sought to establish herself among the first female Jewish artists of the time, if not the first in an art community that was resistant to change (Kirchen).
Solomon’s relationships with her brothers, particularly Simeon, were strong. Aside from Rebecca, Abraham and Simeon were the only established artists in the family; Abraham, an associate of the Royal Academy, became famous for the social commentary in his genre work, and Simeon was a Pre-Raphaelite artist, whose work was inspired by his Jewish heritage. Abraham was admitted to the Royal Academy of Art (RA) in 1841, whereas Rebecca studied under him and attended the less prestigious Spitalfield’s School of Design, as women were not permitted to study at the RA before the 1860s. Abraham and Rebecca shared studios at 50 Upper Charlotte Street as well as 18 Gower Street from 1851 until Abraham’s death in 1862. Although Solomon was limited in what and where she could paint, it was evident that her brothers were supportive of her career—they encouraged her to converse with their artist friends in hopes of her securing work. In 1861, George Boyce reported having “met Woolner and a brother sculptor, John and William Millais, Mr and Mrs Abraham Solomon and Miss Solomon,” confirming her association with various Pre-Raphaelite artists (Lambourne 274). It is known amongst scholars that Rebecca accompanied Abraham to social events to promote her work.
However, it was her younger brother Simeon with whom Solomon enjoyed a closer personal relationship, especially after Abraham’s death. Rebecca taught Simeon everything she knew in terms of their religious heritage, and this teaching is reflected in his art (Welby 58). Pamela Gerrish Nunn cites the 1860s correspondence of Solomon’s friend, Aggie Macdonald, who reported that Rebecca kept a Jewish calendar to keep up with festival dates (19). Rebecca’s own religious devotion would have been undoubtedly admired by Simeon. It is also clear that her teachings were a great inspiration to Simeon, as the Jewish subjects in his art are clear affirmations of his cultural heritage and respect for his sister. The siblings only shared a studio at Fitzroy Street from 1868 up until Simeon’s arrest in 1873, but Rebecca often acted as his personal agent on professional trips to Italy.
The majority of Simeon’s artwork is concerned with religious spiritualism, but many of his works, much like those of other Pre-Raphaelite artists, focus on solitary female figures. The only impressions we may have of Rebecca’s physical appearance are to be found in Simeon’s paintings. It is interesting that Simeon may have chosen his sister to be his muse, given the sexualized nature of the relationship between artist and muse. It has been widely speculated that Rebecca modeled for quite a few of his initial works, as they were produced during the time the siblings shared a studio and the female subjects are all strikingly similar. Because we have no photograph of Rebecca, there is no way to confirm that she was indeed his model. However, Simon Reynolds and the Geffrye Museum both claim that she modeled for his earlier paintings, two of those being The Painter’s Pleasurance (1861) and Lady in a Chinese Dress (1865), because of the similarities between the female subjects.2
Serious Artist and Social Activist
Solomon enjoyed a busy and sometimes frivolous social life. She socialized with her brothers’ non-Jewish friends and conversed with the Du Mauriers and the Kiplings during her family’s “wild” parties (Geffrye 22). She also understood the importance of marketing her own work, and she exhibited paintings in Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool, and Manchester, as well as at the Dudley Gallery and at the Royal Academy. Her illustrations were featured in London Society and The Churchman’s Family Magazine, and her paintings were reproduced in the journals of the Royal Art Academy, as well as in the Illustrated London News (Conroy and Ferrari 2010). Her paintings commented on gender and social class differences, exploring the plight of women and the prejudices surrounding class and ethnic minorities. Anita Kirchen remarked on the “wholesome, moral and sometimes humanizing sentiment in her art, an uncommon element in Victorian painting,” suggesting that her Jewish heritage was “instrumental in developing her critical consciousness of difference.” Her work broke away from the emphasis on the feminine ideal, defining the reality of women’s lives in art rather than portraying idealized women as previously defined by male-dominated institutions.
Solomon also affected reforms for women in the art community, joining a group of thirty-eight women petitioning for the Royal Academy to be more gender inclusive in 1859. These female artists sent letters calling for the Academy’s admission of women, stating, “By this post arrives a letter 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” (qtd. in Cherry 16). Solomon was also a keen philanthropist and was concerned with the welfare of impoverished Jewish children. The Jewish Chronicle documented Solomon’s involvement with charity events organized by Jewish societies. In 1861, the periodical listed Solomon’s donation of 10 guineas to a soup kitchen for the Jewish poor at the Black Horse Yard in Aldgate. In 1862, Solomon also contributed to the Junior Philanthropic Society for apprenticing young Jewish boys and girls (“Donation” 1861, 1, “Donation” 1862, 1). It was considered rare for a middle-class woman to earn her own income and to be able to make donations of that size. Clearly, Solomon was dismissive of this stigmatization and sought to use her income for the benefit of others within her community.
As aforementioned, Solomon was keen on marketing her own work and meeting prominent members of the art world, including the preeminent painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The relationship between the Rossetti and Solomon families has never been discussed in depth, but it is known that the two families were friendly. Simeon must have conversed with Rossetti quite often since both were part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and we know that these conversations extended to Rebecca. For example, in the following letter, Solomon appeals to Rossetti for his insight on a painting of hers. She originally addressed the letter from her mother’s address at 18 John Street, but then readdressed it from her studio in Fitzroy Street:
12 Fitzroy Street
Dear Mr Rossetti,
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 opportune it 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’s.
With best compts [compliments]
Solomon often promoted her work to her clients through her endearing letters, and she apparently did this with zeal. Her marketing talents are also demonstrated in this letter to Mr S.C Hall:
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.
Rebecca Solomon (qtd. in Ferrari, 27)
The Decline of Rebecca Solomon
Solomon’s art was featured regularly in public exhibitions, including that of the Society of Lady Artists Exhibition, until the 1870s. However, following Simeon’s arrest for attempted sodomy in a public urinal in 1873, her profile gradually diminished. It is not known whether Rebecca knew of her brother’s sexuality, but regardless, Simeon’s arrest devastated the Solomon family name and their reputation as a respectable middle-class family. According to the 1881 census, Solomon was still listed as an “artist painter” with a studio at 182 Great Titchfield Street (Ferrari 25), which suggests that she was still producing and marketing work. Nevertheless, it is clear from 1879, Solomon became financially destitute, as more of the art community turned on her and her disgraced brother.
It has been widely speculated that, during this period, Solomon turned to alcoholism and developed an “errant nature and came to disaster,” rendering her completely incapable of working (Wood). There is, however, no real evidence to suggest that Solomon had ever turned to alcoholism or fell into such emotional disarray. Tragically, though, she died after being hit by a hansom cab in 1886. Records state that, at the time of her death, Solomon did not live with any members of her family, but she was only a few streets away from Simeon. Solomon’s death was not reported in any periodical, and even the Jewish Chronicle did not publish an obituary. There are currently no existing records of where she may be buried.
It appears that Solomon has been wiped from history, despite her promising career and the barriers she dismantled. There are no known photographs of her, or even any records describing her appearance. From her youth to her tragic death, Solomon challenged nineteenth century ideals and has had little recognition for it. There is a desperate need to investigate the erasure of Rebecca Solomon’s life and work from historical records; and hopefully someday, Solomon’s status as a significant figure in art and feminist history will be restored.
1 The Freedom of the City of London is a status acquired by citizens of the city who have the freedom to live, trade and work within the city of London. The freedom that citizens enjoy has long associations with privileges in the governance of the city. The status is also recognised as an honorary title that is awarded to those who significantly contribute to the city.
2 See Simon Reynolds, The Vision of Simeon Solomon (Catalpa Press, 2010) and Solomon: A Family of Painters (Geffrye Museum, 1985).
Cherry, Deborah. Beyond the Frame: Feminism and Visual Culture, Britain 1850-1900. Routledge, 2012.
“Donation to the Jewish Philanthropic Society.” Jewish Chronicle, 13 Jun. 1862, p. 1.
“Donation to the Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor.” Jewish Chronicle, 20 Dec. 1861, p. 1.
Errington, Lindsay. Sunshine and Shadow: The David Scott Collection of Victorian Paintings. National Gallery of Scotland, 1991.
Ferrari, Roberto. “Rebecca Solomon, Pre-Raphaelite Sister.” Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society, vol. 12, no. 2, 2004, pp. 23–36.
Ferrari, Roberto. “To the Rossettis, From the Solomons: Five Unpublished Letters.” Notes and Queries, vol. 52, no. 1, 2005, pp. 70–75.
Gerrish Nunn, Pamela. “Rebecca Solomon.” Solomon: A Family of Painters, edited by Geffrye Museum and Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Inner London Education Authority, 1985.
Kirchen, Anita. “Rebecca Solomon.” Jewish Women’s Archive, [https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/solomon-rebecca](https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/solomon-rebecca).
Lambourne, Lionel. “Abraham Solomon, Painter of Fashion, and Simeon Solomon, Decadent Artist.” Transactions, vol. 21, 1967, pp. 274–286.
“Rebecca Solomon.” Simeon Solomon Research Archive, [https://www.simeonsolomon.com](https://www.simeonsolomon.com).
Reynolds, Simon. The Vision of Simeon Solomon. Catalpa Press, 2010.
Solomon: A Family of Painters, edited by Geffrye Museum and Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Inner London Education Authority, 1985.
Valman, Nadia. The Jewess in Nineteenth Century British Literary Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
Verhoeven, Timothy. Secularists, Religion and Government in Nineteenth-Century America. Springer International Publishing, 2018.
Welby, Thomas Earle. The Victorian Romantics, 1850-70: The Early Work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, Burne-Jones, Swinburne, Simeon Solomon and their Associates. G. Howe, 1929.
Wood, Christopher. The Blessed Damozel: Women and Children in Victorian Art. Christopher Wood Gallery, 1980.