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Pre-Raphaelites

Books: Forgotten lives revived and careers reassessed as lesser-known Pre-Raphaelites are reconsidered

Reconsiderations of Simeon Solomon, Marie Spartali and William James Stillman

In view of the torrent of books on the pre-Raphaelite movement that have poured from the presses in recent years, one could be forgiven for thinking that all the stones had been turned. But then another book revealing an overlooked aspect or artist comes along, reminding us that there there are still some holes to be plugged.

Love Revealed: Simeon Solomon and the pre-Raphaelites is an exhibition catalogue with critical essays that accompanies the first full-scale retrospective of the artist’s work in a century. The show has already been seen at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and at the Villa Stuck, Munich, and is currently on view at the Ben Uri Gallery, London (until 26 November).

The editor Colin Cruise makes it clear in the introduction that none of the contributors considers Solomon for the two things for which he is generally remembered, if he is remembered at all: that he was Jewish and gay, and that he was arrested for sodomy at the age of 32, the event that led to his critical and personal demise. The stated purpose of this catalogue is, rather, to reassess the artist’s work by examining his association with the pre-Raphaelites and the various influences which informed his work, such as classical culture and the standards and values espoused by the Royal Academy.

His work is contextualised by putting it alongside a selection of works by more familiar 19th-century artists, including Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Madox Brown. Debra Mancoff makes a crucial point in explaining that Solomon entered the pre-Raphaelite circle in 1858, when the group’s dedication to Ruskin’s “truth to nature” had grown lukewarm compared to the fervour of a decade earlier, and when Rossetti was developing the aesthetic that would later come to be known as his “Blue Bower” period. Dr Mancoff argues that Rossetti’s new focus on the “inner life and emotional state” influenced Solomon’s artistic practice and style and underscores it by tracing the chronological build up of critical responses to his work. A comparison of Rossetti’s Beata Beatrix and Solomon’s Winged and Poppied Sleep clinches the argument. Love Revealed is not a major investigation, but a first step towards a long-awaited re-assessment of an artist whose work has for too long languished in the shadows.

A pre-Raphaelite Marriage: the Lives and Works of Marie Spartali Stillman and William James Stillman is less successful. Marie Stillman is primarily known as a pre-Raphaelite model and groupie, despite her achievements as an artist—a lifelong devotion to painting (she was a pupil of Ford Madox Brown, was advised by Rossetti and Burne-Jones and exhibited with Leighton and Alma-Tadema) which resulted in an œuvre of more than 170 works. The publishers claim this book to be her first biography and promise it will “fully examine her work”. It fails to do either. The biography is overlong and makes too many digressions. Sharing equal billing with her in the title, her American journalist husband William is dismissed from the start as an emotionally detached, joyless man; unfortunately a third of the book is devoted to him.

David B. Elliott, who has had complete access to the Stillman family archive, reproduces every last letter between the artist and her friends, chronicling her daily life in wearisome detail, while information about Stillman’s work is relegated to a single, last chapter, just 15 pages out of more than 220.

Nevertheless, like Love Revealed, this book is a first step towards the rehabilitation of a worthy career and fascinating life. Marie Stillman deserves better.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Forgotten lives revived and careers reassessed'