This Victorian painting depicting two women in love was almost lost forever

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Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

In a small and delicate 1864 watercolor, the archaic Greek poet Sappho embraces the poet Erinna, her lips almost touching. Safo's longing is evident on his face, while Erinna, with heavy eyelids, looks at the viewer and takes the dress off her shoulder.

The painting, "Sappho and Erinna in a Garden in Mytilene," is probably one of the first depictions of female same-sex desire for a gallery audience in the West, and the painter Simeon Solomon was a gay Jewish artist who lived in Victorian England whose work has been almost forgotten.

Salomon, who was associated with the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite movement, was cut short when he was arrested twice for same-sex links with men (in 1873 and 1874), at the height of his fame, and tragically changed. the course of his life.

For the past 25 years, Dr. Roberto C. Ferrari, curator of art properties at Columbia University Library of Fine Arts and Architecture, has been one of the few contemporary scholars to study Solomon's work and present it to a wider audience, by founding the Simeon. Solomon Research Archive.

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Today, although his work is not yet widely known, Solomon is considered a cult figure in the history of gay and queer art. Since Ferrari started working on the archive in 2000, more attention has been paid to the artist's images, including a traveling retrospective from 2005, and in 2017, Tate's exhibition "Queer British Art 1861-1967" placed Solomon as an important artist who represented the same thing. sex themes

"The openness of society to queer culture, in general, has allowed Simeon Solomon the opportunity to go back out and be rediscovered," Ferrari said in a video call from his home in New Jersey. "I think it is important to recognize that it was incredibly important to advance the position of Jewish artists at the time. London in Middle Victorian England was still very anti-Semitic."

For Ferrari himself, who is gay, discovering Solomon's work while in graduate school was a revelation. "It was a time when I came out of the closet and was free to find a historical figure who had been through his own trials and tribulations," he said.

A portrait of Simeon Solomon by David Wilkie Wynfield

A portrait of Simeon Solomon by David Wilkie Wynfield Credit: Historical images / Alamy

Provocative paintings

Solomon was born in London in 1840 to a middle-class family of eight children. While studying art at the prestigious Royal Academy Schools as a teenager, he was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelites, a secret little society of English artists who came together in 1848 to reject contemporary ways of thinking about art. They gave up on the idealized scenes of the Renaissance master Raphael, whose style was widely promoted at the Royal Academy, and instead advocated a return to naturalistic detail. They also disliked genre paintings, scenes from everyday life that were popular at the time, and favored paintings depicting historical, mythological, and religious narratives.

Simeon Solomon's "Bacchus 2" Credit: Painters / Alamy

Before Solomon looked for inspiration in Greek and Roman mythology, his early works focused on Old Testament themes: Jochebed, the mother of Moses, and the prophet Jeremiah. Ferrari said his work was criticized for being too limited: a Jewish painter who paints Jewish subjects. Even after embracing the revival of classicism, and later the art-for-art movement, he would continue to paint Old Testament figures intermittently for the rest of his life.

It was through meeting with the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne that Solomon developed a fascination with Sappho, a mysterious but beloved 7th-century lyric poet from the Isle of Lesbos, whose few surviving poems and fragments describe longing and unrequited love, specifically for young women. (The word "lesbian" comes from her birthplace and this desire for other women.) In her most comprehensive surviving poem, a plea to the goddess of love and pleasure Aphrodite, she writes: "Come to me now once more and free me / from anguished anxiety. / All that my heart longs for, fulfills. And be yourself my ally in the battle of love. "

"Love in Autumn" by Simeon Solomon (1866) Credit: DEA Image Library / De Agostini / Getty Images

"Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene" was the first classic theme that Solomon painted, and marks a turning point in his career. Provocative and full of the tension of desire, the embrace of women is repeated in a pair of turtledoves on them.

"It is very sensual, but it is not hypersexual," Ferrari said of the watercolor, which measures only 13 by 15 inches. "Sappho is leaning towards Erinna. Erinna is receiving the hug. And yet you can see that while there is a sense of passion, I see Erinna as almost hesitant to receive the passion, (there is) fear of what the world might see". "

A short run

Solomon's work was full of homoeroticism: wavy classical and religious scenes with a background of sexual intimacy, such as his 1863 depiction of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the Book of Daniel; or his 1866 work "Love in Autumn" by a young naked and agile Eros.

These same-sex nuances did not prevent him from regularly exhibiting and selling his work, but when he was arrested, at the age of 32, for attempted sodomy in a public toilet in London with a man from the senior stable, his career was set in motion. danger.

After six weeks of detention, Solomon was released on bail. "Somehow, Simeon could probably have saved his career," said Ferrari. But then, a year later, Solomon was arrested again, this time in Paris, where he was found with a prostitute. He spent three months in prison. Prison and it was subsequently abandoned by those in their artistic circles.

"(The arrest) really changed (his) entire career," Ferrari continued. "Unfortunately, due to social barriers, restrictions, and homophobia, as a result everyone totally alienated him."

"Night" by SImeon Solomon Credit: Art collection 2 / Alamy

Solomon's problems became more complex in the second half of his life, as he faced addiction problems and was regularly left homeless. But in the late 19th century, new audiences were discovering his work, including a young Oscar Wilde, who found a kindred spirit in Solomon, and the aristocrat Earl Eric Stanislaus Stenbock, who eventually became Solomon's patron and provided him with food, clothing . and study space.

"These are figures who (saw Solomon's work) as a search for queer identity, passion and exploration between people of the same sex," said Ferrari. "He became a strange hero, so to speak, later in the 19th century."

His work also became known abroad in the United States. In 1896, the decade before his death, with important exhibitions in Philadelphia and New York.

"It not only disappeared because it was rejected by society," explained Ferrari. "He continued to work very hard and many people continued to support him."

"Babylon has been a golden cup" by Simeon Solomon
Credit: Art collection 2 / Alamy

Solomon described androgyny throughout his career, from Sappho's masculine features to the ambiguous head studies he produced later in life.

"(He had) a cross-gender sensitivity, that is, without an agenda, with figures who have the appearance of men and women," said Ferrari.

In this way, Solomon was not only one of the first advocates of same-sex relationships in art, but the entire spectrum of gender expression. "I think part of what he's struggling with is that the idea of ​​gender and love is supposed to overcome the human limitations of this binary system that exists in our society," said Ferrari. More than a century later, representations of Solomon's love and fluidity of identity still resonate.

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