The picture depicts Sappho embracing her fellow poet Erinna in a garden at Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Sappho was born at Lesbos in about 612BC. After a period of exile in Sicily she returned to the island and was at the centre of a community of young women devoted to Aphrodite and the Muses. Although Solomon believed Erinna to have been part of this community, we now know that she lived not on Lesbos, but on the Dorian island of Télos, and slightly later than Sappho, at the end of the 4th Century BC. Sappho wrote nine books of poetry, of which only fragments survive. The principal subject of her work is the joy and frustration of love and the most complete surviving poem is an invocation to the goddess Aphrodite to help her in her relationship with a woman.
The Tate collection includes a study for the head of Sappho (1862, Tate T03104) which was drawn two years before the watercolour. She is crowned with laurel and has dark, Mediterranean, slightly androgynous features. She represents a 'masculine' foil to Erinna's seductive femininity, emphasised by the soft flesh tones, partially exposed breasts and shoulder. Their love for each other is emphasised by the pair of doves seated above them. Sappho is identifiable through her traditional attributes: the lines of poetry and the musical instrument set to one side. Plato called Sappho the tenth muse, which possibly explains the presence of the deer, sacred to Apollo.
Solomon was a close associate of the Pre-Raphaelites and his work owes much to Rossetti (1828-82) and Burne-Jones (1833-98). The influence of Rossetti, and more especially the poet Swinburne (1837-1909) - who was influenced in turn by Sappho's poetry - led him to explore the forbidden subjects of homosexuality and lesbianism. However, he was unable to conceal his own sexual preferences and on 11 February 1873 was arrested for homosexual offences. Thereafter he was shunned by the very artists who had encouraged his daring subject matter.
This work was bought by James Leathart, who owned a number of works by Solomon, all dating from the early 1860s. He probably bought the picture directly from the artist, or through the agency of Rossetti.
Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London 2000, p.222-3, reproduced p.222, in colour.
The Tate Gallery Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions 1980-82, London 1984, p.35, reproduced p.35.
Christopher Wood, Victorian Painting, London 1999, pp.223-4, reproduced p.224, in colour.