Friday, October 10, 2008

Banished Angel

When Oscar Wilde wrote his long 1895 letter from prison, De Profundis, to his lover Lord Alfred Douglas, he mourned for all that he had lost to bankruptcy, including art by Simeon Solomon, one of the last of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. Born October 9, 1840, Solomon knew what Wilde was going through, having himself been arrested for his homosexuality in 1873. The fallout from that scandal threw him from the upper echelon of the art world and forced Solomon to work in poverty for the last thirty years of his life. Before the arrest, Solomon flirted with danger in such homoerotic works as Love in Autumn (above, from 1866), which shows a scantily clad angel with flaming red hair banished from an unseen Eden in the background. The chill winds blowing the angel’s drapery around may symbolize the chilly reception Solomon knew his sexuality would bring once the secret was out. Solomon cultivated an outlandish personal style that set him apart even in the flamboyant circle of artists surrounding Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Often wearing Oriental dress and allowing his red hair to grow excessively long (like the angel’s), Solomon drew all eyes to himself and painted a bull’s eye for the authorities.

In addition to his sexuality, Solomon’s Jewish faith set him apart from the rest of the Pre-Raphaelite circle in England. While artists such as Edward Burne-Jones relied heavily on Christian imagery, Solomon instead looked to more classical Greek and Roman models. Those ancient cultures and their tolerance of homosexual behavior may have offered a safe haven for Solomon as well. In a watercolor painted before his 1873 arrest, Solomon paints Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (above, from 1864). In this painting, the famed lesbian poet Sappho embraces another female poet Erinna. It took a lot of daring to paint such a subject, which surely make suspicious viewers even more suspicious. Putting aside the subject matter, however, you can see the wonderful draftsmanship and approach to the human figure that made Solomon a rising star and drew the praise of the Pre-Raphaelites while he was still just a student.

Alcoholism ravaged Solomon after the scandal. He died in 1905 from complications related to his addiction. Solomon lived in such poverty that he often couldn’t find the money to buy canvas to paint on. Rumor has it that Solomon actually painted on the street in charcoal at one point, hoping that passers-by would drop a coin into his cup. One of the rare oil paintings of Solomon’s late period, The Moon and Sleep (above, from 1894), shows Endymion visited by Luna in the Greek myth turned into Romantic verse by Keats. Although Luna is female and Endymion is male, Keats’ poem’s homoerotic overtones made it a code word for “the love that dare not speak its name” in Wilde’s England. Luna and Endymion both share long, reddish hair, perhaps symbolizing the female and male elements in Solomon’s soul. Yet, Endymion sleeps and he and Luna never connect, just as Solomon himself never connected with the intolerant age that banished him and his art literally to the streets.

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