What Really Happened to the First Gay Art Star?
Simeon Solomon was a rising celebrity in the Victorian art world when a sex scandal supposedly forced him into obscurity. The truth is more complicated.
By Tim Gihring
On the night of February 11, 1873, Simeon Solomon is arrested. He’s 32 years old. He’s handsome, with dark red curly hair and a short wispy beard — like Bob Dylan in the late 1960s or Pan, the mischievous god. He has the slight, sly smile of someone about to say something totally inappropriate.
He is an artist, a former child prodigy who has exhibited his paintings at the highest level for almost half his life, starting when he was just 18.
And now, at 7:10 p.m. on a cold night in the West End of London, Solomon is arrested in a public restroom. He is arrested along with a 60-year-old man named George Roberts, who spends his days as a stableman, cleaning up after horses. The two men are taken to the police station, just around the corner.
They are stripped and examined by a doctor, who probes their rectums and genitals until he has seen enough. Solomon and Roberts are charged with attempting to commit a crime that until just a decade before had been punishable by death, an act listed on the books as “the abominable crime of buggery.”
Let’s jump back to the year 1000 BCE, a thousand years before Jesus of Nazareth comes along. David, a shepherd boy in Israel, has just killed the giant Philistine warrior Goliath. He’s holding the giant’s severed head before King Saul, the king of Israel. As if to say, “Look, I just saved the Jewish people with my slingshot. Sorry about all the blood.”
King Saul’s son, Jonathan, is standing beside his father, checking out this heroic shepherd boy. And right then and there, according to the Book of Samuel in the Bible, “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as himself.”
They make a “covenant,” the Bible says. They become a thing, kissing and crying together at one point, until Jonathan dies in battle. David, when he eventually becomes King David, honors Jonathan’s memory by seating Jonathan’s son at his royal table—instead of honoring tradition and killing him, along with the rest of Saul’s family.
The Christian tradition says eh, they were just good pals. The Jewish tradition says no, this was real love.
And so, jump forward to 1852. Simeon Solomon is 11 or 12 years old, the youngest of eight children in a prominent Jewish family in the East End of London. His father is one of the first Jews to be granted the freedom of the city, after centuries of oppression. His sister Rebecca is an artist and so is his brother Abraham. And now, here’s Simeon, already starting art school himself and incredibly precocious and hitting puberty.
Simeon is well aware of the story of Jonathan and David. And when he eventually goes on to study at the Royal Academy, at age 15, he latches onto their story as a way to explore this kind of love within the very acceptable bounds of the Bible.
He draws Jonathan and David, over and over.
To understand the world that Simeon Solomon is coming of age in, let’s go back once again, this time to 1533, when the Parliament of England passes the Buggery Act. The law makes gay sex punishable by death, and it stays on the books, with some fits and starts, until 1828 — when it’s replaced by a law that still makes gay sex a death sentence.
The last two men to be sentenced to death for sodomy in England — James Pratt and John Smith—are brought to the gallows in 1835, just five years before Solomon is born. They are in their early 30s, yet they are so weak and heartbroken by the day of their execution that the executioners have to carry them from their cell. As Smith’s hands are being bound together, the easier to pray to God, Pratt cries out: “Oh God, this is horrible, this is indeed horrible.”
When Solomon finishes his art education, at 18, this is the reality: There is no place in Victorian society for a man like him. Except in his art.
By the time Solomon is finished at the Royal Academy, he has befriended his heroes: a very small, very influential group of older artists who call themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. These artists loathe Impressionism and nearly every other trend in popular art going back to the late Renaissance, when Raphael launched a thousand fleshy cupids into the clouds. They find these developments vapid.
What they really love is the medieval era, or at least the idea of it. When painting was painting — you paint what you see, with clean lines and strong colors. When men were men, and, at least in art, so were the women.
Some of the defining elements of Pre-Raphaelite art:
- Good old Bible-thumping context. Never mind that you’d be hard-pressed to find a bunch of artists who did so much thumping, in the biblical sense, in so short a time. They slept with their models, they slept with each other’s wives.
- Medieval themes: literally damsels in distress and Sir Galahad to the rescue.
- Women who looked…kind of like men.
And so, here comes Solomon, who can really use this convention of androgyny to his benefit. And he can also really use the Biblical setting. The Near East, or the Orient as it was sometimes called, had long been a place where relatively respectable artists, like Mozart, could play with eroticism, because it was “the other.”
Noam Sienna, a historian and Jewish educator in Minneapolis who has studied and written about Solomon, says that for the young artist and others like him the Orient becomes an escape into a time and place — mostly imagined — where homosexuality is okay. Where the love that dare not speak its name is spoken.
Of course, Solomon is already considered “the other” in Victorian England, being Jewish. In one of the few photographs that exist of him, he’s wearing a large white turban and a dark, heavily brocaded robe of some kind, really leaning into the theme. In the late 1800s, as it happens, there is demand in England for images of Jewish life, of families and rabbis at their rituals, as the Jewish religion becomes slightly more normalized in English life. Like, “See, this is fine. These are a pious people. Look how long their beards are.”
In 1862, Solomon creates a series of drawings of Jewish life for an English magazine. One of these drawings is of a Jewish wedding, the bride and groom under a chuppah with the rabbi. Everything looks sedate, except that at the edges of the picture are two men—two handsome, top-hatted men about town—holding the poles of the chuppah and paying very little attention to the action under the tent. Instead, they are staring at each other across the ceremony, which will never be for them.
In 1866, Solomon goes to Florence, Italy, to study the Old Masters. For some time now, he has already been traveling in his art to the classical world, ancient Greece in particular. Like the Orient, it’s another kind of imagined homeland for gay and lesbian identity, as Noam Sienna puts it. Greece, in fact, is still part of the Ottoman Empire in the 1800s, overlapping with the imagined Orient.
Solomon has painted the female poets Sappho and Erinna embracing. He’s drawn a homoerotic portrait of the elderly Socrates with a young, very happily nude spirit. And now, in Italy, he paints “Love in Autumn,” one of his masterworks. It’s a portrait of a beautiful boy angel, out in the wilderness, far from the dirty, dangerous city. He looks like a lonely, vulnerable teenager, naked except for the robe being blown off him by the wind and of course his wings.
For many reviewers, this subtext is apparently going over their heads. They praise the work for its classic feel, “warmed by colour and softened by romance.” But other critics are starting to describe Solomon’s work as abnormal—”lacking in moral intention.”
Solomon returns to Italy in 1869 and 1870. In Rome, he writes a long prose poem called “A Vision of Love Revealed Through Sleep,” a kind of allegorical journey of the soul from fear to revelation. With trembling optimism, he hints at a community of like-minded people, ready to step out of the shadows.
Solomon makes use of several tender, poetic phrases from his namesake book in the Bible, the Song of Solomon, couching the theme of same-sex love in the language of moral authority: “I sleep, but my heart waketh,” “Many waters cannot quench love,” and this line, which both opens and closes the poem, “Until the day break and the shadows flee away.”
As Noam Sienna, the historian, sees it, Solomon has been forced to live in fear, under cover —in a dark night of the soul, if you will. But now, as his soul says to him at the very end of the poem, “Love is the crown over us and the light about us. Through the thick veil of the darkness of the world, this is not seen or known of men, but only through the spirit may it be made clear unto us.” A new dawn may be coming, in other words, when his vision of love can shine openly.
After the poem is published, in 1871, some reviewers start seeing in Solomon’s art what was always there, right under their heteronormative noses. One critic warns Solomon against “insufficient manliness” in his choice of subjects and detects a “sentiment bordering on the crapulous,” which doesn’t sound good, whatever it means.
The following year, a Scottish poet writing under a pseudonym goes after the Pre-Raphaelites and their acolytes, as their style is becoming predominant. The critic calls them “public offenders” and charges them with “sickliness and effeminancy.” He says they’re threatening the very foundations of “true English life.”
He singles out Solomon as one of those artists who “lend actual genius to worthless subjects and thereby produce monsters.” He says he despises the sort of person who “goes into ecstasy over Mr. Solomon’s pictures.”
Around this time, Solomon attends the trial of two men, Earnest Boulton and Frederick Park, known to their friends as Stella and Fanny. They had been arrested in London for transgressing against “public decency,” in which they did, according to the complaint, “publicly pretend and hold themselves out … to be women.”
They are cross-dressers, well known in the theatre district. Solomon writes letters to his friends about seeing them at the trial, describing Boulton as “not quite beautiful but supremely pretty, a perfect figure, manner and voice.”
Both men are acquitted, because the police have no evidence that they had sex with each other or that wearing women’s clothes is actually a crime. But the law is tightened as a result, so guys like Stella and Fanny don’t slip through.
By 1873, when Solomon and the stableman are arrested in the public bathroom, there is no escaping prosecution. The stableman is sentenced to 18 months of hard labor in prison. Solomon avoids this fate— he’s released to the care of his cousin with a 100 pound fine and a promise to behave himself.
But Solomon does not behave himself. He’s arrested again the following year, in a public bathroom in Paris, with a male prostitute named Henri. And this time he serves three months in a Paris jail.
Most of his friends and patrons desert him. Even the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, who referenced masochistic sex acts in his writing, disavows his friend, writing that it’s impossible “for anyone to keep up his acquaintance and not be seen as an accomplice.”
About 20 years ago, several researchers including Carolyn Conroy and Roberto Ferrari began piecing together Solomon’s life after his arrests. And they discovered that he wasn’t quite the humiliated failure that earlier art historians had made him out to be.
On the one hand, his life is certainly not great. He moves out of the fashionable Chelsea and West End areas of London. He’s poor and drinking more.
Yet he’s still making art and he’s still exhibiting it, if not at the top galleries. In 1873, after his first arrest, he creates a strikingly self-confident self-portrait, now at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. In the watercolor picture, he is an angel, with wings and a subtle halo, and unabashedly naked, the tie of his robe tossed in the bushes. He is staring at a crystal ball—a popular trope in Victorian art—as though contemplating his future.
His art is reproduced as photographic copies, and it makes the rounds of likeminded young men at places like Oxford’s student halls, where Oscar Wilde, in 1877, describes Solomon as “that strange genius.”
Oscar Wilde famously goes on trial himself less than 20 years later, in 1895, when no one actually has to be caught in the act of buggery anymore, just suspected of it. And so, on trial for gross indecency, Wilde makes a mockery of Victorian prudishness.
“Have you ever adored a young man madly?” Wilde is asked.
“No, not madly,” Wilde responds. “I prefer love, that is a higher form.”
“Did you ever have the feeling,” Wilde is asked, “that you wanted a young man all to yourself?”
“No,” he responds. “I should consider it an intense nuisance, an intense bore.”
Finally he’s asked, “What is the Love that dare not speak its name?”
And Wilde replies that it’s like the love between David and Jonathan.
It’s the “noblest form of affection,” he says. “There is nothing unnatural about it.”
In 1884, Solomon enters the workhouse. He has become indigent to the point of illegality, yet he also claims to like the workhouse because of its “central location” in London.
He lives until August 1905, when he dies in the dining room of the workhouse after 20 years of being in and out of the place. By then he has outlasted the Victorians, but he hasn’t outlasted the oppressive laws or the society that passed them. In the obituaries written about him, he is described as one of the “most miserably tragic stories in the whole chronicles of art.” He could have been great, one critic writes, he could have been somebody, had he been of “normal temperament and reasonable habits.”
Solomon is forgotten until, at the height of the AIDS crisis in England, he starts to resurface. In 1987, a British theater artist named Neil Bartlett creates a one-man show about Solomon, with the same title as his poem, “A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep.”
Bartlett likes Solomon’s early work, the moody, androgynous boys. But he really likes the later work, the images Solomon made after he’d become bald and stooped and drunk—after his supposed fall from grace.
Solomon couldn’t always afford canvas and oil paints anymore, so he drew on cardboard with chalk and charcoal. As Bartlett notes, the lines were less sharp than they used to be, the elaborate backdrops were mostly gone. He often just drew faces: two faces gazing at each other or a single visage gazing at himself. Over and over again he drew them, as though he were summoning their dreams.
When Bartlett gets onstage, he’s naked except for a robe and his mustache. “I had this dream,” he says. And he describes seeing these young men — former lovers, perhaps — beaten down in the street. Bleeding on the pavement.
He cries out to the spirit showing him these visions: “I don’t think you can ask us to wait to be happy. … Oh, that the day would break and the shadows flee away.”