Simeon Solomon as an Illustrator

Due to lack of space, the full-sized pictures have been removed from this file, and only the small pictures remain.

In the 1860s, Simeon Solomon made a few very important illustrations for well-known magazines of the time. In 1862 he had drawings in Once A Week, and also in Good Words, where many of the most famous Pre-Raphaelites also provided drawings. However it is the pictures for the Leisure Hour (1866) which are the most remarkable, and which are reproduced here.

The Leisure Hour pictures illustrate Jewish customs, and there are ten articles, each with a single 5x4 inch illustration. They are: the Feast of Dedication, Circumcision, Celebration of the Passover, the Marriage Ceremony, Eve of the Jewish Sabbath, the Feast of Jerusalem, the Day of Atonement, the Feast of the Tabernacles, the Rejoicing of the Law, and the Week of Mourning.

The introduction to the series begins as follows:
"We propose to present our readers from time to time with pictures (after drawings executed by Mr. Simeon Solomon) of various rites and ceremonies observed by the Jews at the present day in their synagogues and homes. We believe that such illustrations will not be without interest, as they will serve to show in what manner several commandments of the Bible are carried out in practice by this ancient people."

The Feast of Dedication

"In the accompanying sketch we see the rabbi, clad in the tallith, the garment bordered with fringes (according to the commandment contained in Numbers xv.37-41), lighting the eight-branched candlestick. The choir, who chant the responses, stand round him. The rite is introduced by the recitation of benedictions ... then a thanksgiving is offered ... and the whole concludes with the singing of the 30th Psalm. The festival, named Hannukah in Hebrew, is also called the feast of Lights. The kindling of the lights is an apt symbol of the light which Providence shed upon Israel, and which dispersed the darkness of an overwhelming tyranny. The small flask of oil that lasted during the eight days may typify the small spark of faith that had remained in Israel, and which was kindled into pious enthusiasm among the whole people. The lighting of the candles is not alone observed in the synagogue, but also in the houses, accompanied by the singing of suitable hymns. This simple ceremony has always made a deep impression upn the youthful mind, and has been found instrumental in perpetuating the event which the great composer Handel has wedded to immortal music."
From an artistic point of view, the picture exemplifies Simeon Solomon's style, and his ability to use effects of depth and darkness to create mystery and a sense of 'a happening', despite the lack of vigorous motion of the figures. Is this a Pre-Raphaelite picture? These works of Solomon's have been described rather as almost impressionist, but for me, they seem almost post-impressionist. Certainly they contrast with the typical Pre-Raphaelite use of careful outlines to show shape, and Solomon shows depth rather than deliberately reducing the picture to a flat plane, or series of flat planes. Nevertheless, there is clearly the influence of Rossetti in this picture - the composition is filled with the figures, who are as tall as the whole picture, in much the same way that Burne-Jones composed figures in his early oils, when he was making Rossetti-like pictures.

Celebration of the Passover

"The principal ceremony of the evening, the one illustrated in the engraving, is performed thus:- The master of the house rises from his seat, takes two of the Passover cakes, breaks them, and gives a piece to each one at the table, who, before eating them, say the usual grace before meals. After this, some of the bitter herbs at the table (in remembrance of the bitterness of the slavery the children of Israel had to endure) are partaken of, a similar blessing being said, and supper is served."

"It is difficult to convey an idea of the delight that fills the heart of the Jew while performing these ceremonies. But alas! whether it was from the basest malevolence, or from incredible ignorance, a monstrous report was spread during the Middle Ages that often turned this season of rejoicing into a period of unutterable woe. It was said - we shudder while writing it - that Jews mixed human blood with the bread they ate on Passover instead of leaven. It is surely not necessary to show the falsehood of such a belief. That a religion that forcibly and repeatedly enjoins to abstain even from the blood of animals, "because it is in the soul", which gives so many detailed and strict laws concerning the sanctity of a man's life, should sanction the mixing of the sacred bread of Passover with human blood! And still such a terrible accusation thrown amongst an ignorant population in those dark ages led but too often the credulous and fanatic mob, in several countries, to bloodshed and rapine, and sanguinary persecution of the innocent Jews at the "joyous" season of Easter. Many harrowing stories could be related in connection with this heartless calumny. Thanks to God, in our happy days of enlightenment the bright matin of civilisation has scared away the hideous red spectre of blood-accusations. The tragedy of Damascus was, we all hope, the last chapter in that ignominious history."

The Marriage Ceremony

"The absence of any direct mention of marriage rites in the Bible will explain the fact that the ceremony among the Jews of the present day is a simple and brief one. ... The nuptials are celebrated generally in the afternoon, although they are not restricted to any part of the day. Nor is it obligatory that the wedding should take place in the synagogue... When the prayer has been concluded, the bridegroom and the bride both drink of the wine. The bridegroom then takes the wedding-ring, and, before placing the same on the bride's finger, in the presence of all those that stand round the canopy, two of whom have been specially set apart as witnesses, he says as follows: "Behold, thou art wedded to me with this ring, according to the law of Moses and Israel." ... [After the marriage contract is read] before withdrawing from under the canopy, it is the custom that an empty glass is laid on the floor, and that the bridegroom stamps upon it and breaks it. Various reasons, some of them very unreasonable, have been assigned for this custom: the most probable one is that in our happiest moments, amidst our most perfect delights - and what can be a greater one than to see ourselves united to the object of our love? - we should be reminded of the vanity of all earthly things. The broken glass is to show that the heavenly Father can in his own good time crush man even as easily as that brittle substance has been destroyed..."

This illustration seems to me a very Pre-Raphaelite picture. The girl attending on the right especially is totally Rossetti, and some of the other figures (see full illustration) could be straight out of a picture by Millais.

The Fast of Jerusalem

"From the commencement of the month Ab, generally about the end of July, the religious Jew abstains from meat and wine. Before sunset on the eve of the eighth of the month, the meal of mourners is partaken of. The head of the family, sitting down on the ground, even as we read of Job, eats of bread strewn with ashes, and, having thus taken the fast, repairs to the synagogue. As will be seen in the illustration, the building is but dimly lighted up by a single lamp, which, in memory of the departed, is caused to burn continually in the synagogue. The minister, in a low and doleful strain, opens the usual evening service ... In the morning the usual prayers are read in the same mournful tone... Then follow a string of elegies and dirges, some of which may be ranked among the most pathetic and eloquent outbursts of grief that have been composed in any language. They mostly allude to the catastrophes that befell the nation, the different martyrdoms under the Romans, and so forth."

The Rejoicing of the Law

"The ninth and last day of the Feast of the Tabernacles is called "Simchath Torah", the rejoicing of the Law. ... On this festival the synagogue is decked out with the utmost splendour, and in the evening it is brilliantly lighted up... On the morning of the festival, when the time has arrived that the portion of the day is to be read, seven scrolls are taken from the ark, and the bearers of the same, including the rabbi, the reader, and the principal officers of the synagogue, all clad in their robes with fringes, form themselves into a procession, and go round the synagogue, past the ark, seven times. During the procession, the choir sings fervent supplicatory hosannas."

The magazine in which these illustrations and descriptions appeared, the Leisure Hour, described itself as "a family journal of instruction and recreation". It was a product of the Religious Tract Society, which produced many worthy illustrated books in the 1860s through to the turn of the century. In the same volume (1866) as the Simeon Solomon pictures, there are articles on how to harpoon the hippopotamus, notes on the Stock Exchange, many articles on Oxford, and a series of short 'original fables' of mixed merit. The Simeon Solomon illustrations are unusual in being credited to the artist, which was not the general practice of this magazine.

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