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lthough female artists such as Rebecca Solomon were initially shunned by the art community, social and economic change in the later nineteenth century allowed for a small number of women artists to thrive. The democratization of art enabled a few under-represented figures to be successful, including Solomon, despite the rigidity of gender differentiation. In light of this, the fortunate female artists who were able to exhibit used their platform to campaign for acceptance in wider society. Rebecca Solomon was not just a muse for her brother’s art and an aspiring painter, but was actively engaged with social reform acts that involved women’s rights. Solomon advocated the rights of women in her art, painting scenes of social injustices, prejudice in gender, class and ethnicity, to highlight what she, and other emerging female workers had to endure. As Linda Nochlin observes, ‘women artists [had to] conceive of themselves as potentially, if not actually, equal subjects, and must be willing to look the facts of their situation full in the face with no self-pity’(61). Female artists were still left disgruntled by their exclusion from other aspects of society and actively sought to change it through the application of their art.
Solomon and Women’s Rights
However, female artists still had to battle the politics that hindered their professional careers. Many women were not permitted to attend certain art schools, nor engage with political affairs such as voting or holding social responsibility, despite paying rent and tax. This frustration was felt by a wide range of female practitioners at the time, who keenly engaged with feminist activists and writers, such as the suffrage leader Millicent Garrett Fawcett. Artist Sophie Beale often wrote to Fawcett in the 1880s expressing her dismay on being unable to vote, noting how: ‘I pay rent and taxes of £130 – I have nothing but what I earn by painting, teaching and writing and naturally have to work exceedingly hard … as the owner of the house … because she is a woman is not capable of voting! Imagine my feelings!’ (qtd. Cherry 142).
Social reformer and sociologist Beatrice Webb transcribed Beale’s letter in her diary, noting that it ‘contains the pith of the argument in favour of women‘s suffrage' (qtd. Cherry 143). Feminist artist Barbara Bodichon, one of Rebecca’s Pre-Raphaelite associates also argued that tax obligations were valid reasons for the enfranchisement of women, as she stated in 1866: ‘That a respectable, orderly, independent body in the State should have no voice, and no influence recognised by the law, in the election of the representatives of the people, while they are otherwise acknowledged as responsible citizens, are eligible for many public offices, and required to pay all taxes, is an anomaly which seems to require some explanation’ (Bodichon 3).
Some female artists went as a far as tax resistance, with arguments for ‘no taxation without representation’ in pamphlets being released in public papers. These individuals were among the painters, sculptors and embroiderers who from the second half of the nineteenth century lent their support to the campaigns for the enfranchisement of women, with many of them contributing to campaign funds through subscriptions and the profits made from selling their artwork. Although it is not known for certain that Rebecca contributed to any campaigns, she was a member of the National Society, a group of women that pressed for women’s rights, and it is quite possible that Solomon made a monetary donation at some point during her career.
The first suffrage petitions included women who had long engaged in feminist politics, including Solomon, Bodichon, Anna Mary Howitt and Eliza Fox; all were members of the National Society, friends and colleagues. As a society, they petitioned for the inclusion of women in politics, property, healthcare and education. In 1859, the National had launched a campaign for women to have more access to vocational education and for female students to be allowed into the Royal Art academies. Rebecca Solomon, along with Henrietta Ward, Charlotte Babb and thirty five other female artists, sculptors and embroiderers signed a letter that was published in the press calling for the admission of female students to the RA. The letter was also sent to forty male artists and associates of the Academy. The campaign attacked the elitist nature of the institution and the short-sightedness of its tutors. Harriet Martineau was enlisted by the campaigners to help publicise the campaign further. Martineau reported that: ‘By this post arrives a letter and petition 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. The present is the time for the move, she says … and begs me to help it on’ (qtd. Cherry 16).
Despite the initial backlash and rejection of the campaign by The Times, the petition was eventually met with success. In 1861, Laura Herford became the first woman to be admitted to the Royal Academy schools. Along with other female artists, Herford exhibited at the institution for years. Solomon became a regular artist to be exhibited at the RA for over seventeen years, and it was due to her energetic efforts, and those of her associates, that women were being accepted by the art world as professional artists, a process that facilitated a wider inclusion in the world of work.
Solomon and Female Independence
Not only did Solomon seek to subvert the ideals of womanhood in the working world, but she also refused to comply with what was expected of her as a young and fertile woman. Solomon never married or engaged with any of the traditional views of the female role of a devoted wife and mother. Her middle-class upbringing would have made her eligible for a decent proposal, and her family’s association with the other influential families such as the Rossettis would have provided her with the ability to secure a respectable suitor. Regardless of this, Rebecca did not marry and does not seen to have enjoyed a romantic relationship; it is possible that she engaged in a brief flirtation with Algernon Charles Swinburne, but this is probably unlikely (Ferrari 24). She had no children of her own, which was also unusual for a woman of her time, and remained a single woman.
Solomon only seems to have been interested in her artistic career. Despite living in the shadow of her brothers Abraham and Simeon, Rebecca still aspired to paint and exhibit her own work as an aspiring professional artist and copier. She was especially keen on marketing her own work and engaging with the key figures of the art world. One of those figures was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The relationship between the Rossetti and Solomon families has never been discussed in depth, but it has been known that the two families were familiar with each other. As an artist working in a Pre-Raphaelite idiom, Simeon must have conversed with Dante Rossetti, and these conversations extended to his sister. In a letter written by Rebecca she asks for Rossetti for his insights into one of her pictures. She originally addressed the letter from her mother’s address at 18 John Street, but readdressed it from her studio in Fitzroy Street. ‘Dear Mr Rossetti, she says,
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’. [qtd. Ferrari 25]
Dante’s artistic influence was so great among his colleagues that this letter serves a hopeful invitation by Rebecca for him to look at her work. Indeed, Solomon was anxious to promote herself and her work to an art community which at the time was so reluctant in accepting women artists. Along with Simeon, she actively engaged with exhibiting and marketing her own work throughout Britain and on occasions accompanied Simeon abroad. Having exhibited her work in Birmingham, Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester, she often promoted her painting to her clients through her endearing letters, which she did with zeal. Her marketing talents are also demonstrated in another letter sent by her to the writer Samuel Carter Hall, in which she says, ‘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’ (Ferrari 27).
Notwithstanding the stigmatisation she endured as a Jewish female artist, her works were received favourably during the peak of her career, before her brother’s untimely arrest. The Art Journal wrote, ‘Rebecca Solomon adds another name to the many who receive honour as great women of the age’ (qtd. Geffrye 22). Solomon’s work is also well-received in the present day by historians, with Anita Kirchen commenting that ‘her work displays a confidence in not only its style, but also its critiques of mid-nineteenth century society’. It is clear that Solomon had built the foundations of a shining artistic career, as her efforts with marketing and making a name for herself was met with public appraisal. Her efforts with promoting herself by appealing to other artists also reinforces how keen she was in becoming a well-respected professional artist on her own. It further supports how Solomon did not want to engage with social norms, but instead aspired to put herself on the foreground.
Unfortunately, despite what amounted to such a promising career as a professional artist and keen social activist, and despite positive recent assessments, Rebecca has been largely erased from art and feminist history. There are many questions as to why she has been deleted from historical records. Most of her works are either lost or in private collections, with much of her life and work still to be uncovered. One of the main reasons as to why Solomon may have been forgotten is because of the male-centric nature of the art community and nineteenth century society as a whole. Although the art community began to welcome the efforts of women artists, art historians of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seemingly ‘forgot’ the vast majority of female artists in favour of more established male artists who were thought to have pioneered key artistic developments. It did not help that, for a large part of history, society has been dominated by men and the patriarchal biases of the systems that conduct society. As Cherry argues, ‘Victorian art carefully screens out anything even mildly tinged with political debate and the women’s movement’ (7), suggesting how women artists were deliberately ignored in favour of pre-established gendered biases of art. It was not until the 1960s and 1970s that art historians had created a Feminist art movement that overtly addressed the role of women, especially in American and Western Europe. The movement explored how the art world is perceived and appropriated according to gender, as well as the role of women in the historiography of art. Women, like Solomon and the women whom she campaigned with have now thankfully came to the attention of art historians and feminists, with more scholarly explorations and representations of these women being written by mostly female scholars. Rebecca Solomon is just one of many female artists, writers, reformers and educationalists who have barely been retraced by art historians, and many gaps in her story have been left unfilled.
It is also suggested that Rebecca’s brother Simeon is largely to blame for her reputation and commercial decline. Up until early 1874, Rebecca was a regular feature in public exhibitions, including that of the Society of Lady Artists Exhibition. However, Solomon’s works appeared less frequently from 1873, around the same time as Simeon was arrested and charged for attempted sodomy in a public urinal. It is not known whether Rebecca knew of her brother’s sexuality, but regardless of this, Simeon’s arrest devastated the Solomon family name and the reputation they worked so hard to build as a respected Jewish family. According to the 1881 census, Rebecca was still listed as ‘artist painter’ with a studio at 182 Great Titchfield Street, but this does not mean she was still exhibiting. In fact, she became financially destitute, as more of the art community turned their back on her and her shamed brother. The letter below, written by Rebecca to Dante Gabriel Rossetti is a sad testament to the devastation caused by Simeon’s arrest and the impact it had on both Solomons’ careers. She also appears to address the awful impact Simeon’s arrest had on the whole family. Although she does not express whether or not she accepted Simeon’s sexuality, she addresses the embarrassments the arrest had caused, and is somewhat begging Rossetti for financial help:
I hope you will pardon the very great liberty I am taking in addressing you, but when I mention the reason I trust it may be an excuse for infringing upon your former friendship. I am sorry to say that for a very long time I have had great difficulties in a monetary way, owing much to the hard times which all artists have felt, but added to which my embarrassments have been increased through a severe family trouble and I believe this latter you know of. I am truly writing to ask if you can render me some slight temporary help, for which I would most gratefully return by any work if you required it in any prepatory assistance such as I have done for many in the profession or by any other means when able. I know of your great kindness and consideration to members of our profession and I regret very much that I should have to request such a favour, for unfortunately from circumstances you may have almost forgotten me though you often encouraged me in my work by your approval. [Ferrari]
It was not known if Rossetti helped Rebecca with her troubles. It is also highly likely that she appealed for help from other members of the Brotherhood whom she had previously become affiliated with, such as Millais or Swinburne. However, Dante Gabriel did comment on Simeon’s arrest in a letter to Ford Madox Brown, ‘Poor little devil! What will become of him?’ (Ferrari, ‘To the Rossettis’ 75) and appeared sympathetic towards Simeon and Rebecca’s situation. However, in August of the same year, Rossetti wrote to Charles Augustus Howell and Brown that Simeon had changed his name to ‘Signor Orazio Buggioni’, punning on the word ‘buggery’ (Ferrari 75). Therefore it is likely that Rossetti chose not to get involved, nor help Rebecca and the Solomon family. Dante’s brother, William Michael Rossetti similarly chose to cut ties with the Solomons, as shown in a letter of his where he reluctantly discusses Simeon’s arrest, ‘After certain incidents in his life I dropped him and wish to never hear or think any more about him’ (Ferrari 75). Neither of the Solomons deaths’ were recorded in Rossetti’s diaries, nor was any further comment made.
Behind the heartbreak of her desperation to salvage her career, Rebecca still exhibited the talent she had in selling herself and marketing her services. It is known that she had an aptitude for promoting herself, which is what earned her a reputation as a regular feature in public exhibitions. However, it is inevitable to say that Rebecca blamed her financial struggle on Simeon and his arrest, as her monetary issues owe much to the ‘severe family trouble’ (Ferrari 74) which at the time would completely eradicate the Solomon family reputation.
Following her brother’s arrest, it was said that Rebecca had developed an ‘errant nature and came to disaster’ (Wood), which proves how much Simeon’s hardships impacted on her. The siblings were incredibly close, and she would have likely been inconsolable to watch her brother endure public condemnation. Following Simeon’s release from prison and during his stint at a workhouse in 1884, he turned to alcohol to mask his troubles. Twenty years later, he was reduced to becoming a pavement artist, begging on the street. In 1905, he died from complications brought on by alcoholism and is now buried at the Jewish Cemetery in Willesden. His gravestone is barely readable, and crumbling. It has been widely speculated that Rebecca too turned to alcoholism which rendered her completely incapable of work. Unfortunately, her life came to a tragic end in 1886 from injuries sustained after being run over by a hansom cab on Euston Road. It has also been said that at the time, she was living alone. There is no trace of her death certificate, nor of existing records of where may be buried. It is likely that she is either in an unmarked grave, or buried with her family.
During Solomon’s later years her art production had diminished and much of her earlier artwork remained unsold. The majority of her work is unaccounted for, and is often only recorded in the form of engravings made for publications such as the Illustrated London News. Nevertheless, the art she produced from the mid-1850s through the 1870s demonstrated not only her involvement with social reform and burgeoning social movements of that period, but also a sensibility that reflects her Jewish identity. Solomon was an advocate for transcending social boundaries, particularly that of gender, class and ethnicity, and interrogating the prejudices surrounding them. Solomon was only one of many women who not only produced their own work, but populated the Brotherhood’s paintings as representatives of the introspective ideals of Victorian femininity. She too, like many individuals at the time, endured social prejudices for her gender and cultural heritage. Yet she pursued her ambitions to thrive as a professional artist, and that she did.
Bodichon, B. Reasons for and against the Enfranchisement of Women. London: National Society for Women’s Suffrage, 1872.
Cherry, Deborah. Beyond the Frame: Feminism and Visual Culture, Britain 1850 –1900. London: Routledge, 2012.
Ferrari, R. ‘Rebecca Solomon, Pre-Raphaelite Sister.’ Review of the Pre-Raphaelite Society 12 (Summer 2004): 23 –36.
Ferrari, Roberto. ‘To the Rossettis, From the Solomons: Five Unpublished Letters’ Notes and Queries 52:1 (March 2005): 74–75.
Solomon: A Family of Painters. London: Geffrye Museum, 1985.
Kirchen, A. ‘Rebecca Solomon.’ Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopaedia. Online version, accessed 04/11/20.
Nochlin, Linda. Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?. London: Thames & Hudson, 2020.
Wood, Christopher. The Blessed Damozel: Women and Children in Victorian Art. London: Christopher Wood Gallery, 1980.
Created 14 September 2021