Jewish Customs. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]

Simeon Solomon's central theme throughout his illustrations is the representation of Jewish life and customs. It is in this domain, as Goldman remarks, that Solomon finds an original voice and idiom (56). In Once a Week (1862), he provides a startlingly modern treatment which maps the everyday social engagements and domestic life of Judaic middle-class life. In The Leisure Hour (1866), conversely, he focuses on doctrinal aspects of the Jewish faith. This set of images exemplifies the magazine's educational brief, showing the gentile audience at large how Jews conduct their spiritual life.

Both series are visualized in distinct and dissimilar styles. The Once a Week illustrations are typically hard-edged engravings associated with the magazine's bold style, while those for The Leisure Hourare eerily diffuse and impressionistic, as if the figures were viewed through candle-light. Much of this effect is the result of the engraving, although the absence of preparatory drawing makes it impossible to judge how much was Solomon's work, and how much the interpretation of the engravers, Heath and Butterfield.

Two of Solomon's Illustrations for Dalziels' Bible Gallery (1880-81): Left: Naomi and the Child Obed. Right: Abraham and Isaac [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]

Solomon's reading of Judaic themes is taken further in his designs for the Dalziels' Bible Gallery (1880-81) and a subsequent derivation, Art Pictures from the Old Testament (1894). These books contain intense representations of Old Testament figures, although his approach is idiosyncratic rather than conventional. An unusual feature, at least within the context of graphic art, is his interest in androgyny, so creating a notion of the beautiful that echoes his work in oil. Most notable, however, is his intense feeling for the relationship between parents and children. This theme is explored in a series of tender designs, and recurs throughout the Bible Gallery. Abraham and Isaac is a good example, and so is Naomi and the Child Obed. Both are still images of great emotional and psychological power, intense explorations of the nature of parenthood which — despite the fact that Solomon never had children — strongly suggest an insider's knowledge.

This touching human drama breathes new life into the stories of the Old Testament, converting its iconographies into legible situations and recognizable characters. In these biblical works, as in his treatment of the everyday, Solomon reveals himself as an able interpreter. Working in disparate idioms, he shows how Jews are either solid (and un-threatening) members of the bourgeoisie, or, in his epic scriptures, human types of feeling and sensibility. As Goldman remarks, his printed designs have 'real power, nobility and insight' (56). Solomon is often constructed (in the shadow of Oscar Wilde) as a gay icon, a man ruined by social intolerance and a tendency to self-destruction; but for his contemporaries, as for the modern audience, his true significance must surely lie in his sympathetic treatment of Jewish culture.

Works Consulted

Goldman, Paul. Victorian Illustration: The Pre-Raphaelites, the Idyllic School and the High Victorians. Aldershot: Scolar, 1996.

Last modified 30 October 2009