sdNational Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 9-10 (V:1-2), 1967

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Two Paintings by Abraham Solomon

by Ian Lowe, Assistant Keeper, Department of Western Art, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, England

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2 

At the eighty-sixth exhibition of the Royal Academy in 1854, Abraham Solomon (1824-1862) exhibited a pair of paintings which caught the attention of the public; these were First Class - the meeting..."And at first meeting loved" and Second Class -the parting / "Thus part we rich in sorrow Parting poor." (1) First Class (plate 1) is now in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa (2) while its pair (plate 2) has remained at Bowood in the collection of the Marquess of Lansdowne, (3) having been purchased by the third Marquess from the Royal Academy for two hundred and fifty guineas. (4)

The comments of the critic of the Art Journal still have relevance and interest: "The subject (of First Class) is an adventure in a railway - carriage; there are three figures: one, an elderly gentleman in the right [sic] hand corner, is asleep, while between the other two, a youth and a maiden, there seems to have arisen a tendresse. As a picture, it is executed with great knowledge and power, but it is, we think, to be regretted that 50 much facility should be lavished on 50 bald - or vulgar - a subject"; and regarding Second Class: "This is a pendant to a picture by the same artist already noticed, called 'The Meeting'; but it is superior to the latter in everything. A widow is accompanying her child, a sailor boy, to Portsmouth or Southampton, whither he is proceeding by railway to join his ship, bound on a long voyage, The characters are well drawn, and the story is pointedly told". (5)

The critic of Punch, Rhadamanthus, joined issue on the subject of the two paintings with the critic of the Spectator, Minos: "I find that we do differ on one picture - Mr Solomon's Second Class. Minos calls it sentimental, using the word by way of disparagement. I confess that neither from the picture nor the word can I gather what Minos objects to. It seems to me for my part, that the subject is a well-chosen one...The subject is one that concerns motherly, sisterly and filial love; and the workings of these various affections are shown without weakness or overforcing. I find the public understand the picture and are touched by it; and I must own that to my mind it excels everything the painter of it has hitherto produced. Its companion picture, the First Class, pleases me less. I admit that the old gentleman sleeping in the sunlight is capital, but the young lady looks to me affected, and the 'gently fearlessly assert and will maintain to be an arrant spooney. (6) But set ting aside this difference in our verdicts - Minos and myself are of one mind - as to the pictures chosen for chief praise". (7)

Despite the praise mentioned in the last sentence, the artist, with a humility which now seems surprising, appears to have taken the hostile criticisms to heart, for he painted another version of First Class. In this he endeavoured to eliminate all traces of the "bald" and the "vulgar" from the subject.

Until the original version of First Class appeared at an auction in London in 1963, (8) it had been thought that it might have been destroyed by the artist as a result of the hostile notice it had received. (9) Certainly the artistic importance of the first version had been over-looked. Yet even had it not reappeared, ample evidence of the first composition would have survived in a small, charming oil study for the finished painting (plate 3). The only detail that is not in the oil sketch is the fishing rod on the right-hand seat. In both the sketch and the painting the artist's handling of the light shed by the set ting sun through the blind, the glimpse of the sunset through the window and the interior of the old London North Western Railway carriage (10) is lively and delicate. An oil sketch was also made for Second Class (plate 4). (11) The colours in both oil sketch and painting are quiet and predominantly grey in tone; whereas those in the oil sketch and the original painting of First Class are vivid. This contrast in colour illustrates and emphasizes the different nature of the two subjects. The revised First Class shares the tonality of Second Class.

Abraham Solomon's second version of First Class - the meeting, previously known only from replicas, is here identified as being the painting which is now in the Museum of British Transport at Clapham in London. (12) A pair, thought to be replicas, had been known to be in a private collection in Yorkshire since 1951, and in 1959 the two paintings were acquired for the British Railways Board's museum. Sir David Scott had suggested to the writer that the artist had probably painted a revised version of First Class as a pendant to Second Class, although its whereabouts were no longer known. The exact similarities of the size of the canvases and the painted arched tops (overpainted in recent years in the case of the second version) together with the artist's autograph signature and the date 1855 establish convincingly that this painting is that postulated pendant. As Lord Lansdowne had purchased Second Class at the Royal Academy the previous year, Solomon had to paint another version of it, also the same size, in order that his revised First Class could hang with its pendant, This "second" Second Class is at Clapham and although it is neither signed nor dated, there is no reason to doubt its authenticity.

A further comparison between the two versions of First Class shows that the most obvious change made in the second, and decidedly inferior, version is in the treatment of the figures. The young lady has been moved from the centre of the composition and here, instead of being genuinely preoccupied with her work, she is looking coyly at the young man. The old gentleman, who was comfortably and perhaps even stertorously asleep in the corner, is now in the centre engaged in conversation with the young lieutenant. (13) This third protagonist has been transformed from a civilian "spooney" into a naval officer, and the hint of a pleasurable excursion, suggested in the former's fishing rod, is now replaced by a reminder of duty in the shape of the latter's sword, The differences between the two versions are marked and the superiority of the original painting and the corresponding oil sketch is decisive, in the original, the group is instinct with an emotion that is wholehearted, even vibrant, but not sentimental, Indeed the Art Journal's criticism could more accurately be applied to Solomon's second than to his first version of First Class.

Of the three pairs of replicas in existence, one pair (14) is distinguished by the artist's characteristic freshness of colours and dexterity. The figures are painted on a prepared white ground, a practice which Holman Hunt had introduced to fellow members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. (15) This accounts for the quality of translucency in this pair, The replica of First Class is a compromise between the original and the second version; the expression of the lady is closer to the original but the composition is still deficient in that strength of feeling which is so notable in the painting in the National Gallery of Canada. The two other pairs of replicas are probably not from Abraham Solomon's hand. (16)

It is interesting to consider a drawing recently purchased by the Ashmolean Museum. (17) It is a study of the sister who appears in Second Class (plate 7), seated with her hat beside her. Skillfully drawn in black chalk, it is signed and dated 1853, the year before the two paintings were exhibited at the Royal Academy. When it was taken out of its former frame and mount, a study for the original version of First Class, was found on the verso (plate 6). Here the young man is looking eagerly across the railway carriage at the demure young lady, the old gentleman being just visible in the corner. The drawing therefore gives further supporting evidence, had it been needed, of the artist's first composition.

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