“Samson” by Solomon J. Solomon: Victorian academy and Jewish identity

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Samson, a monumental painting (244 x 366 cms, plate 1) by the Anglo Jewish artist Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860-1927), was exhibited at the annual exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1887.1 It depicts the dramatic climax to the biblical account of Samson's relationship with Delilah, when he discovers that she has betrayed him to the Philistines, and he struggles to free himself from their soldiers' chains.

Samson was displayed prominently in Gallery VI of Burlington House and attracted much public attention. Soon after the exhibition opened, Samson was acquired by the art dealer Raphael Isaacs for 1000 guineas, evidence of Solomon's growing reputation.2 The interest that the painting generated while exhibited at the Royal Academy continued afterwards, and it became a landmark in Solomon's artistic career. It was referred to in most publications concerning the artist and was Solomon's entry permit into the late Victorian art scene. His Samson was also exhibited at the Autumn Liverpool Exhibition in 1887 and was later presented by the shipowner James Harrison to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool to mark Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in the same year.

Differences of opinion about Samson expressed by art critics illustrate the interest that the painting stimulated. The work was appreciated as being innovative, particularly in its reliance on French academic painting and the grand style, and less on English painting. The Art JournaPs critic regarded Samson as 'the most prominent work in the collection',3 while Claude Phillips of The Academy noted Solomon's 'distinct and personal, if not a very exalted vision of the subject ... a thrill of real dramatic force such as is not common in the work of English Artists'. He praised 'the note of human

1 A. Graves, The Royal Academy of Art: A Complete Dictionary of Contributors and Their Work From its Foundation in 176g to igo4 IV (London 1906) 208.

2 'Royal Academy', Jewish Chronicle (hereafter JC) 6 May 1887, p. 12.

3 Lae, Art Journal (1887) 349, Solomon J. Solomon file, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.

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Plate i Solomon Joseph Solomon, Samson, 1887, ou< on canvas, 244 x 366 cms, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. National Museums Liverpool (Walker Art Gallery).

passion [that] is unmistakably felt, and for this the youthful artist might fairly claim absolution in respect of even greater artistic sins that he has committed'.4 Some referred to the painting's dramatic power and brush work, expression of energy and movement, boldness, ambition, originality and depiction of human emotion.5

However, other critics criticized the exaggeration of the figures' obtru? sive anatomy and the painting's confused composition. The review in the Athenaeum denounced 'the mock tragedy Mr. Solomon J. Solomon calls Samson', and advised the artist to 'practice self-restraint and patience before he can hope to reach the solid ground of noble art'.6 George Bernard Shaw's review in The World referred in a similar tone to Solomon's preten? tiousness: 'he bids boldly for high place as a nineteenth-century Rubens by a Samson in the old-fashioned magnificent

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