Simeon Solomon

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene


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Simeon Solomon 1840–1905
Watercolour on paper
Support: 330 × 381 mm
frame: 511 × 558 × 46 mm
Purchased 1980


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.

Further reading:
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.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

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Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘ΣΣ/2.64’ bottom right; inscribed on a label on the stretcher ‘In a garden of Mytilene”/Painted in Water Colors by/ Simeon Solomon/1864’
Watercolour on paper, 13 × 15 (33 × 38.1)
Purchased at Sotheby's Belgravia (Grant-in-Aid) 1980
Prov: Presumably acquired from the artist by James Leathart, who died 1895; sold by his executors, Christie's 19 June 1897 (14), bt Parsons; ...; acquired by Solomon Golding, probably in 1919; his son, Jessel Golding, Manchester, sold Sotheby's Belgravia 9 April 1980 (20, colour), bt Christopher Wood for the Tate Gallery.
Exh: A Pre-Raphaelite Collection [Leathart Collection], Goupil Gallery 1896 (48, as ‘Sappho and Erinna’).

Solomon depicts Sappho embracing her fellow poet Erinna in a garden at Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. Born on Lesbos about 612 B.C., Sappho returned after a period of exile in Sicily and became the centre of a community of young girls devoted to Aphrodite and the Muses. Although the sources available to Solomon suggested that Erinna was part of this community, she is now thought to have lived rather later than Sappho, at the end of the 4th century B.C., and on the Dorian island of Télos rather than Lesbos.

The Newcastle collector James Leathart owned several works by Solomon, all dating from the early 1860s and probably acquired direct from the artist or through the agency of D.G. Rossetti (see The Leathart Collection, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, 1968, p.34). For a related drawing, see the next item, T 03104.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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