[This biography of Hart comes from Portraits of Men of Eminence in Literature, Science, and Art, with Biographical Memoirs, Vol. I, ed. Lovell Reeve (London: L. Reeve & Co., 1863): 103-8. It is an Internet Archive version of a copy in the New York Public Library. — Jacqueline Banerjee]

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OLOMON ALEXANDER HART was born at Plymouth, in Devonshire, a locality that has probably furnished more artists than any other in the kingdom, in a county that is notorious for its singular indifference and apathy towards the cultivation of arts. In his day, [John] Prince was so proud of the products of his county as to have chronicled a history of the more celebrated of his Worthies of Devon. At a later period [William] Brockedon, a native of Totness, was wont to say that the only countenance ever shown him was the purchase of one of his sketches, which, as a presentation, served the purpose of an electioneering bribe; while, from the commencement of his career, [Benjamin Robert] Haydon was left totally unheeded, and other artists lived to see the preference given to strangers of inferior pretensions and talents, exemplifying again the force of the adage of the lacking of honour to the prophet in his own country. There is now no chronicler for the worthies of the county; and it is almost the only county in the kingdom unrepresented by any annual exhibition of fine arts in any one of its towns.

Self-Portrait (as a young man).

Amid such local disadvantages of means of training, the subject of this notice left his native town for the great metropolis in the year 1820, with the intention of becoming a pupil of Mr. Charles Warren, then celebrated as an engraver of book-prints from illustrations by [Robert] Smirke [Snr], [Thomas] Stothard, [Richard] Westall, and others of the literature current at that time.

The earliest instruction the artist received was at the hands of his father, Mr. Samuel Hart, a person of considerable intelligence, who had studied miniature painting under Mr. Abraham Daniels, a miniature painter, a native of Bath, who, like the Italian artists of the middle ages, combined with the painter's art the practice [103/4] of jewellery, chasing, the art of setting precious stones, and engraving. In [William] Bromley's Catalogue of British Engravers the elder Mr. Hart is mentioned as the engraver of certain figure-subjects, though it does not appear that he pursued this branch of the art to any great extent. He drew from the antique in London, under the auspices of James Northcote; but he soon, quitted London and the fine arts to return to Plymouth, to fulfil an engagement he had contracted with the mother of the subject of our present memoir. The experience and knowledge which he had derived from previous essays in fine art were communicated to his son, and served as the basis of an art education which was afterwards to undergo the discipline supplied by an organized school of art. The negotiations with Mr. Charles Warren, and afterwards with Mr. Scriven, a chalk or stipple engraver, having gone off, Mr. Hart in 1823 entered as a probationer into the schools of the Royal Academy, received in due course his ticket as a student, studied afterwards in the Life academy, but did not make use of the Painting school for any other purpose than investigating the motives of such pictures as were from time to time lent to this department, believing that copying servilely from a variety of styles and various practices only tended to promote torpor of those powers that should be exercised in the investigation of principles; and that copying, at best, only cultivated mechanism and terminated in manufacture. Like most persons emerging into active life, Mr. Hart had, in addition to the struggles and vicissitudes of a professional career, the charge of domestic duties. On reference to the Exhibition Catalogues of the Royal Academy, we find some of the earliest productions of his pencil miniatures, among which may be noticed the miniature of the parent to whom, as we have said, he owed his earliest indoctrination in his profession.

The repetition of the motives and the construction of the miniature, and the commonplaces to which such a devotion of time would lead, were little in accordance either with the tastes or the ambition of the youthful artist, who craved for more extended dimensions on which to expatiate, and sought themes of more general interest than the gratification of personal vanity or the record of the casualties of nature. Accordingly, in 1828 his first picture in oil, exhibited at the British Institution, manifested the aspirations of the painter, and met with recognition at the hands of a Mr. Hudson, who immediately purchased it from its walls. In 1830 the first of [104/5] a series of pictures, illustrative of ceremonies of the Jewish religion, exhibited at the Suffolk Street Exhibition, attracted much attention, was purchased by the late Mr. Vernon (now in the Vernon Gallery), and was followed by many commissions for other subjects as well from the Roman Catholic as the Jewish ritual. For Mr. Vernon, Mr. Wells, the late Lord Lansdowne, Lord Farnborough, and other noblemen and gentlemen then distinguished as collectors, Mr. Hart continued a series of illustrations which, being singular in their treatment and novel in their themes, were very popular. But the artist was now anxious to illustrate some phase in history, poetry, or fiction. In 1833 appeared at the Suffolk Street Gallery Wolsey's Arrival at Leicester Abbey by Torchlight purchased by J. P. Ord, Esq.; and in 1834 a picture on extended dimensions, subject, The Quarrel Scene, from Shakspeare's Henry the Eighth, between Wolsey and Buckingham attracted the notice of the late Lord Northwick, in whose collection it remained until the contents of the gallery were dispersed. This was followed in 1835 by another large picture, an illustration from Sir Walter Scott's Tales of the Crusaders the scene between Richard Cceur-de-Lion and Saladin disguised as a physician, in which the monarch is in vain advised not to drink the medicated water, a work which won for its author the Corporation Prize of 50 from the town of Liverpool, in which place it was shown after its exhibition in the Royal Academy. It was in consequence of this production that in the month of November of the same year Mr. Hart was admitted into the ranks of the Royal Academy as an Associate, in which class he remained until the year 1841; having meanwhile, in 1836, exhibited at the Royal Academy a large picture of Sir Thomas Jones receiving his Father's Benediction in the Court of King's Bench it having been the custom of the Lord Chancellor, previous to taking his seat in the Court of Chancery, to pass into the Court of which his father was a Puisne Judge, and kneel to receive this diurnal benediction. This picture was purchased by Alderman Salomons, and is now a conspicuous feature in the gallery at Broom Hill, Tunbridge Wells.

In 1839 two smaller pictures only appeared, one, entitled An Early Reading of Shakspeare was afterwards lodged by the artist as his diploma presentation work on being elevated to the rank of an Academician, an event that took place in the mouth of February, 1841, consequent on the appearance of the [105/6] artist's largest picture and most extensive composition, The Execution of Lady Jane Grey on Tower Hill exhibited at the Royal Academy the previous year (1840).

At the end of the summer of the year 1841 Mr. Hart left England for the first time, to make acquaintance with those works of art which, while they constitute the glories of the several cities which they adorn, form to the student and the man of taste the canons of principle and codes of practice of the art. Having passed through Paris and visited the Louvre, our artist sought without unnecessary delay the chefs-d'oeuvre of the most distinguished masters in the strongholds or chief localities of their practice in Italy. Passing through Turin and Milan, after beholding the glories of the Brera, inspecting the Eclectics at Bologna, and Correggio at Parma. Florence, — the cradle of the Arts, as it has been justly termed, — detained him some weeks with the fascination that church, monastery, and gallery present in fresco and oil picture, from the so-called revival to the latest days of practice. Pisa, with its Campo Santo, offered great interest in some of the earliest, as Rome did of the later times; from Giotto to Raphael, — the Alpha and the Omega of art practice. Returning from Naples by way of Rome, the Tuscan territory, (after visiting Perugia and Assisi,) with the towns of Arezzo, Siena, Pistoia, etc., all contained matters of illustration in Art history. Proceeding homeward by way of Florence to Forli, across the Apennines from the Mediterranean to the Adriatic, Ravenna gave another exemplification of the prowess of Giotto, as well as the degree in which the shepherd-painter availed himself of the Byzantine mosaic wall-picture. Nor was this influence unfelt in Padua, where, after having left Ferrara, the works of Giotto and his school again appear. The Arena, the Church of the Santo, were in striking contrast, in motive as well as in conduct, with the works in fresco by Titian. In Venice the most accomplished efforts of the great school of colourists can alone be estimated, to an efficient appreciation of which a journey in the Friulian Alps formed a good preparation. Treviso, Castel Franco, Bassaiio and its neighbourhood, attested the origin of many of the motives of the pictures from the hands of her native painters. Not only colour, but in the architectural forms supplied by the palaces of Venice, Verona, Vicenza, the antiquities of Brescia, and in the intermediate villages, every place supplied or teemed with evidences of artistic inspiration, often explaining the origin of [106/7] much with which we accredit the author for originality of design or ingenuity in contrivance. Returning home at the end of the year 1842 through the Tyrol, after a tour of sixteen months, by way of Munich, the art condition of that city was expressive rather of the reproductive than the originative spirit of her artists, and the strong German analytic spirit fostered by the Poet-King Ludwig has, at least, the merit of having set up the Tuscan metropolis as the model for her own capital city. To the inquiring student a visit to the German and Rhenish cities, if made after the tour of those of Italy, is deeply instructive of the source of the excellence beheld in the architecture and painting of the last generation in Germany. The works of Rubens and Vandyke, whether in the Piiiacothek at Munich, or in the churches or gallery of Antwerp, instruct in the degree in which Rubens had looked at Michael Angelo, and together with his pupil Vandyke, had both studied the colour of Titian.

There is a unanimity of opinion on the value of foreign travel at a time when the artist has arrived at something like a resolution in his own practice, after many trials, successes, failures, and the experience they bring. Then it is that he is capable of estimating the labours and the excellences of those who have preceded; he is then enabled to estimate the motives of every square inch of their productions; then it is that he is enabled to ascertain their degrees of originality; then it is he can estimate the relative values of schools conspicuous for widely differing qualities. Time thus spent brings with it better consequences than slumbering over a copy of some favoured picture, or pursuing desultory studies in various towns, or in setting up an easel to perpetuate the ethnography of the Trinita del Monte steps, often at most but imperfect counterfeits of the neighbouring peasantry, the mere hackneyed model decked out in mimicry of the actual contadini, often in costumes and in properties at variance with, or in contradiction of the veritable costumes special to the different villages or mountain cities of the Pontificate or the Regno.

Photograph of Hart by Ernest Edwards. Source: Reeve, facing p.103).

We have stated that Mr. Hart first attracted attention by his series of pictures illustrative of the ceremonies of the Jewish religion. After his sojourn in Italy he returned with increased power to this class of subjects. Between 1843 and 1853 appeared Simchath Torah, or Festival of the Law, Scene in a Polish Synagogue etc., followed by numerous subjects from the Old Testa[107/8]ment, such as Hannah the Mother of Samuel and Eli the High Priest, Solomon pondering the Flight of Time, Righteousness and Peace, etc. Mr. Hart has, however, embraced many other subjects, including especially history and biography, among which may be noted his Galileo observing the Oscillations of the Lamp in the Cathedral of Pisa, Milton visiting Galileo in the Prison of the Inquisition, The Parting of Sir Thomas More and his Daughter, The Three Inventors of Printing, Gutenberg, Fust, and Schoffer, studying the Invention of Moveable Types. Mr. Hart has also produced several characteristic Shakspearian pictures, Othello and Iago, Jessica, etc.; and a few striking portraits, among which may be mentioned those of the Duke of Sussex and Sir Anthony Rothschild for the Jews' Hospital, Sir Moses Montefiore for another Jewish Institution, and Alderman Salomons for the Guildhall.

When, on the retirement of Mr. Leslie from the office of the Professorship of Painting in the Royal Academy, that office became vacant, it was suggested to Mr. Hart that he should offer himself as a candidate, and in consequence he was elected, and delivered his first course in 1855, his previous journey in Italy having qualified him for the duty of preparing a set of papers, which he continued to deliver until the close of the season of Academic teaching in March, 1863.

His lectures during this period "show," says a contemporary, "that he not only possesses adequate professional learning for the office, but that by his earnest inculcation of intellectual exertion, of the necessity of a wide range of study, constant reference to the fundamental principles of art, observation of the predominant sentiment and essential characteristics of a composition, and of reflection, discrimination, and self-reliance in choice of subjects, he is a valuable guide-monitor to the enthusiastic student at the commencement of his career."

Created 10 September 2018