Friday, September 9, 2011

Color Palettes: Solomon J. Solomon (1860-1927)


When artist Solomon Joseph Solomon was elected an associate of England's Royal Academy in 1896, it was the culminating result of years of study dedicated solely to the ideals of academic art.  So fitting was his inclusion at the Royal Academy, that the only real surprise as to their recognition of Solomon was that it had not occurred earlier.  It was an event which marked Solomon's entry into the upper echelon of artists, adding to his reputation and increasing his exposure in the public sphere, eventually making him one of the most popular portrait painters of his time.  Though Solomon has become a minor figure in the histories of Late-Victorian and Edwardian art, the importance of his election to the Academy should not be overlooked  - not only did it make Solomon just the third Jewish man to be awarded such an honor (and later, the second to reach full RA status), it also provided him a platform to offer a new form of training to Britain's art students.


Born to a wealthy family in a Borough of South London, Solomon grew up privileged, and though he was aware of social prejudices against the Jewish community, especially towards those recently emigrated to London's East End, he was spared much of the unfairness aimed at others of his heritage and religion.  He was not an 'outsider,' but what has come to be labelled an Anglo-Jew, someone equally proud of his race and beliefs as he was to be British, and it was perhaps his strong link to his country that brought him his initial successes in the academic art world.  Unlike other Jewish artists who would come later, and who would express their culture through social commentary, Solomon saw in the paintings of British mythology a kinship to his own religion;  to him the chivalric code embodied by knights in shining armor was no different than the ethical code by which Solomon felt all practicing Jews should conduct themselves.¹  His paintings which celebrated England and, though not overtly, Jewishness, made him a popular figure at the annual Academy exhibitions, and earned him his ARA and an unofficial hanging spot nicknamed "Solomon's Corner."²

Paintings such as Laus Deo (l.) and St. George (r.) placed Solomon squarely in the traditions 
of the Pre-Raphaelites and firmly in the camp of the classical revivalists such as 
Frederic Lord Leighton.  In such works Solomon found a means to express his pride in 
both Englishness and his Jewish heritage.

This is no way insinuates that Solomon downplayed his culture and religion to find acceptance in the British society and art world.  On the contrary, he was outspoken in his beliefs that Jews should not assimilate their culture with that of their host country, and that the idea of reformation of the Jewish religion was just an effort to patronize Gentile approval.³   That his beliefs formed the core of his person, yet were not conspicuous in his art should not be viewed as hypocrisy, but as a sign of his comfortability with his nationality as well as his socio-religious heritage.⁴   

High Tea at Sukkah

As a committed Jew, and as a prominent figure in England's high society, he was very conscious of what he regarded as the obligations his position placed upon him within the Jewish community.⁵  In 1891, he was elected the Founding President of the Maccabeans, a club for Jewish professional gentlemen interested in literature, science, and artistic or professional pursuits,⁶  and in 1896, as part of the Maccabeans, helped in the running of a new outlet of the group, the Jewish Educational Aid Society, which, among other things, sought to provide funding for the training of exceptionally talented Jewish artists in financial straits.  So strongly did he believe in his responsibility to his heritage, that in 1918, it is rumored he responded to his nomination as President of the Royal Society of British Artists, "I feel ought to accept the Presidency, because I am a Jew."⁷

James Ramsay Macdonald

Though it was Solomon's allegorical work which brought him the accolades of the Academy and of the public, it was in portraiture where he really excelled, and where he was best able to reconcile the dual affiliations inherent in being an Anglo-Jew.  Here again, Judaism played a significant role in how Solomon worked;  he felt that portraiture should be a celebration of God's conception.⁸  Unlike other painters who exaggerated the features of their sitters, or who merged the features of their sitters with preconceptions of the human form, Solomon felt that it was necessary to be true to nature.  Artists who idealized their figures were, to Solomon, Pagans.

This ability of Solomon to capture true likenesses made him extremely popular, and brought him many high-profile commissions.  Among his sitters were such notables as King George V, Queen Mary, the young Prince of Wales, the humorist and writer Israel Zangwill, Prime Minister Asquith, Member of Parliament Sir Benjamin Cohen, businessman Sir Adolph Tuck, banker Ellis Franklin, stock-broker Sir Joseph Sebag-Montefiore, Dr. Hermann Adler the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, Prime Minister Ramsay Macdonald, poet Nina Salaman, historian Heinrich Graetz, London's Lord Mayor Sir George Faudel-Phillips, and George Cadogan the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Knight of the Garter.

Anglo-Jew sitters were particularly supportive of Solomon, as can be seen in the roster of portrait subjects the artist included in the highly-publicized, annual exhibitions.  Every year, from 1885 until his death in 1927, Solomon included at least one picture of a prominent member of the Anglo-Jewish community in his exhibits at the Royal Academy, and between 1891 and 1914 more than half of the thirty paintings Solomon exhibited at the annual display of the Society of Portrait Painters were of Jewish sitters.⁹  Partly, Solomon's popularity within this sector was due to his being of the same community.  His adherence to truthful representation was also an attraction;  anti-semitic sentiments among other portrait artists often resulted in paintings which were filled with insulting stereotypes and caricature.  But of additional significance to his sitters was Solomon's standing within the art community itself.  His ability to publicly display portraits of his Jewish sitters alongside other noteworthy Britons at such venues as the Royal Academy's Annual Summer Exhibit, served as a means of integrating the Anglo-Jewish community as a whole within contemporary English society,¹⁰ and for his sitters this was an important step towards acceptance.

Ajax and Cassandra

With his inclusion in the Royal Academy, Solomon also gained a greater influence over Britain's art students, and very quickly, in such a role of supervising art education, established a very distinct reputation.  Though Solomon's own initial education as an artist had begun in England, the majority of his training came under the auspices of the atelier of Alexandre Cabanel in Paris, and in the French system Solomon saw a manner of teaching exceedingly better than what Great Britain had to offer.  British art students were taught at that time that the personality of their teacher was important to their development as pupils, but such dependence on the personal predilections of a singular teacher, Solomon felt, was detrimental to a student's growth and freedom of expression, and more often than not, led to painting fads.¹¹  Solomon's belief was that the principles of painting were more important than the personal opinions of the teacher, and that an objective, scientific study of drawing and painting was essential to the foundation of artistic training.  The cleverest artists of his day, Solomon felt, were products of French studios;  having first been well-grounded in the scientific side of their profession, these students each developed a personal working method and point of view that made them stronger and more individual mature artists.¹²

The Life Class

In 1910, Solomon, using the practical experience derived from the lessons he learned under Cabanel at the Académie des Beaux-Arts, published his first book, The Practice of Oil Painting & Drawing.  Contained within was the same scientifically-based education Solomon had first recommended England's Royal Academy adopt, but modified after years of observing what succeeded in his own classroom.  The resulting art-instruction manual was seminal, and is as relevant today as it was at the beginning of the last century.

Interpretation of Solomon's suggested pigments (page 79 of The Practice of Oil Painting & Drawing).

The color palette suggested in The Practice of Oil Painting & Drawing for direct painting might, by today's standards, be regarded as quite limited, but, in Solomon's opinion, it was rather rich in color.  It comprised the following pigments:¹³

  • Kremser White or Blanc d'Argent
  • Flake White
  • Stiff Flake White
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Light Red
  • Extract of Vermilion
  • Rose Madder
  • Indian Red
  • Cobalt
  • Emerald Oxide of Chromium
  • Raw Umber
  • Burnt Umber
  • Ivory Black
  • For special purposes, Warm Naples Yellow and Lemon Naples Yellow might be added.

These pigments were considered by Solomon to be "adequate for flesh painting and for most of the ordinary effects of colour."¹⁴  Most on the list were considered "chemically safe" (non-fugitive), with the exception of Rose Madder, which was "evanescent," but included because it was deemed essential.

Modern painters might be surprised by Solomon's inclusion of three different lead whites on his palette, but these were used according to the degree of impasto desired in any particular area of the painting.  Kremser or Blanc d'Argent had little body but were useful for mixing with other colors.  Flake white and stiff flake white each had more body and were useful for creating more solid passages of light.¹⁵  How these pigments relate to modern lead whites can be a bit confusing, unfortunately.  Different historical references vary on their opinions of how these whites were produced, if they were pure or adulterated, and which was the best.  In general, all of the whites on Solomon's list should be considered of high quality.

Solomon advised using fresh colors each painting session.  "Stale or partially dry colours," he stated,"will hamper you.  There are a few reds, like Rose Madder, Vermilion, Light Red, and Indian Red, as well as Black, which may be left on the palette for a few days.  They do not dry as quickly as the others, which you will do well to remove at the end of the day's work."¹⁶

"To avoid waste," he continued, "you may transfer the paints from the palette to a sheet of glass, which does not absorb the oil like the wooden palette;  and next morning remove the 'skin' that has formed over night, and put the fresh pigment that will be found under the skin back again upon the palette."¹⁷

"Do not starve your palette," he further suggested, and always, "keep your palette scrupulously clean."¹⁸

To expedite painting, and to encourage the use of a more fully-loaded brush, Solomon also encouraged students to, "mix up a few masses of the light, half-tone, shadow, and background colors,"¹⁹ prior to commencing painting.

The Practice of Oil Painting & Drawing was reprinted several times during the twentieth century, but when public tastes in art changed, the book left circulation.  Currently, used copies are moderately easy to find, especially in Great Britain, and of course, the original has now been digitized and is available for download online from such sources as Google Books.  For those who prefer referring to an actual physical book, but are not in the market for purchasing antique collectibles, the good news is that Dover Books has announced that they will be reprinting the manual for release in 2012.  It has a new introduction written by James Gurney, and is now available for pre-order at Amazon for under $13.00.

¹ Peter Gross, Representations of Jews and Jewishness in English Painting 1887-1914, (The University of Leeds, 2003), p. 105, as retrieved September 6, 2011 from [].
² ibid., p. 102.
³ ibid., p. 112.
⁴ ibid., p. 101
⁵ ibid., p. 99.
⁶ ibid., p. 108.
⁷ ibid., p. 100.
⁸ ibid., p. 112.
⁹ ibid., p. 103.
¹⁰ ibid., p. 104.
¹¹ A. Lys Baldry, "The Work of Solomon J. Solomon, A.R.A.," in The Studio, Volume 8 (1896), London, pp. 10-11.
¹² ibid., p. 11.
¹³ Solomon Joseph Solomon, The Practice of Oil Painting & Drawing, (Seely, Service & Co. Ltd., London, 1952), pp. 75-76.
¹⁴ ibid., p. 76.
¹⁵ ibid., p. 77.
¹⁶ idem.
¹⁷ ibid., pp. 77-78.
¹⁸ ibid., p. 78.
¹⁹ idem.


Madeira said...

I just have to say 'thank you' for always knowing what to say, who to include in your essays and how to comment upon the featured work or message. It is a lot of work that you go to and I hope you know there are thousands of us out here who so appreciate it and look forward to 'Underpaintings' in our mailboxes!

Stephen Cefalo said...

Thanks for posting this, that Eve piece blows my mind. Great post.

Darrell Hill said...

The "Life Class" is just a great painting. Many figure painters of today need to study this and other work shown on this blog.

Albert. S said...

I wonder of the Dover ed, will contain in color pics?? Surely would be a nice appeal. Nevertheless, it's great that it's coming on book form.

Alan said...

Great article. I particularly appreciated the inclusion of the palette. I was looking at the preceding image and wondering how the hell you come up with that veil of flesh in paint. It's always nice to compare each artist's approach to color.

Gabriel Mark Lipper said...

Fantastic post! I've been trying to merge the palette of Carolus Duran with the palette of the French ébauche from your earlier post. I see that Solomon beat me to it and even added rose matter. Beautiful work.

myaledet said...

good to know that SJS's book is being reprinted - I have an original copy and several of his paintings as he is my great-grandfather, but nice to know that his work is still appreciated

Unknown said...

This is a really good find. Whilst artists were busy painting, so few thought to leave their precious teachings behind (or simply wanted to keep things secret!)
I found a good illustrated online copy here: