Simeon Solomon

Study of Erinna


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Not on display

Simeon Solomon 1840–1905
Graphite on paper
Support: 250 × 187mm
Bequeathed by Holland Roberts Melson Jr. in honour of Simon C. Wilson and the late Alessandra Zerbino Wilson 2015


Study of Erinna is a pencil drawing by Simeon Solomon dating from April 1862 showing the head and shoulders of the ancient Greek figure of Erinna. Scantily draped and with her head inclined to one side, the figure gazes out with a forlorn expression. In the top right corner the artist has depicted an olive branch in blossom, its stem encircled by a cartouche bearing the woman’s name. The drawing is dated and signed with the artist’s monogram on the lower left. Erinna was an ancient Greek poet, a native of either Rhodes or the adjacent island of Télos, and was active around 350 BC. In Solomon’s day she was believed to have been a lover of the earlier Greek poet Sappho and part of the community of young women devoted to Aphrodite and the Muses which Sappho had established on the island of Lesbos following her return from exile in Sicily.

Solomon’s study relates to his later watercolour Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene 1864 (Tate T03063), which depicts the two female poets embracing. The pencil study presents the latter poet with loose unbound hair and a melancholic expression evident in the finished painting. A second study related to the finished watercolour, Study of Sappho 1862 (Tate T03104), is also in Tate’s collection. These three works possibly relate to Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Beloved (‘The Bride’) 1865–6 (Tate N03053; see also Tate N04284) in the close compression of female heads and choice of model: the figure of Erinna in the drawing and watercolour bears a striking resemblance to the central woman in The Beloved, drawn from the model Marie Ford.

During the 1860s Solomon played a prominent role in the emergence of the aesthetic movement by advocating a self-consciously sensual and amoral style of painting focused on subjects from antiquity and the Bible, for example in The Moon and Sleep 1894 (Tate T01719). Although his works were controversial in challenging the mores of contemporary bourgeois society, they won him the support of a small coterie of critics and collectors who championed the development of a more abstract and cosmopolitan mode of expression in British art. Solomon was also a pioneer in promoting what would now be termed an openly ‘gay’ imagery, by representing subjects on the theme of same-sex love for which he adopted an androgynous and psychologically introspective ideal of beauty. With their intense spiritualised expressions, the figures in all three Sappho and Erinna compositions might be seen to represent not only same-sex desire but also the artist’s own sexual feelings, at a time when the expression of homosexual motifs was usually displaced into a mythological or biblical past. Solomon was in fact not alone at the time in looking to the ancient Greeks as a source of inspiration for the utopian same-sex communities he envisaged in his art; similar erotic themes and esoteric motifs can be found in the writings of the artist’s contemporaries Algernon Swinburne and Walter Pater.

Although this drawing appears to be a study for the watercolour of Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene, Solomon may not yet have had in mind the latter work, which dates from two years later. The drawing most likely originated as an independent work to complement the Study for Sappho which is dated ‘14/4/62’, just two days before the date on the study of Erinna. The dates in both drawings are interwoven into the artist’s monogram (which appears on the lower left of the sheet in both cases) in a similar way and the drawings also carry similar scroll-like inscriptions. Although the angle of both heads matches the positioning of the figures in the final composition for the watercolour, the drawing of Erinna includes a number of details which Solomon did not carry across into this work, namely the necklace and thorn branch arranged around the poet’s neck and the carefully rendered olive branch to the right of the figure. Historically worn by brides or virgins, symbolising victory as well as peace, the olive branch might have been intended to offset the laurel wreath that adorns the head of Sappho in the Tate drawing and which indicates her fame as a poet. A sprig of olive can also be seen in Solomon’s drawing Erinna taken from Sappho 1865 (Dr Dennis T. Lanigan Collection, Canada).

Further reading
Colin Cruise, Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon and the Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Birmingham 2005.

Alison Smith
April 2015

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