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May 04, 2009

Painter's Blasts from a Century Past

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Recently James ("Dinotopia") Gurney posted on British painter Solomon Joseph Solomon (1860-1927 -- Wikipedia link here). Two of Solomon's better paintings are shown below.

Ajax and Cassandra - 1886

St. George - c.1906
Diploma Work for membership in the Royal Academy: accepted 1906.

Gurney mentions that Solomon's 1910 book about drawing and painting can now be downloaded from this link. (If you encounter problems, an alternative is mentioned in comments to Gurney's posting.)

Of course I printed out much the book and popped it into a ring binder for ready reference. At least one illustration seems to have been missing from the copy that was duplicated, but such losses are not too serious.

Here are some excerpts that caught my fancy. Charming (if a bit hard to follow sometimes) is his Victorian way with words.

Apparently some aspects of painting haven't changed in character in the century since Solomon wrote

By the system of apprenticeship that obtained during the Renaissance and in those now regretted days when the decorative arts flourished in Europe, the knowledge of our craft was handed on from master to pupil. Those valuable traditions are to-day but a faded memory; but such is the spirit of the age, that even did the unbroken chain of tradition reach back to the fifteenth century, when oil-painting first came into general use, its sanction would probably be questioned and its teaching neglected. [Page 66]


Teachers have been too superior, perhaps too uncertain themselves about their craft, to do aught but teach and criticise aesthetically, and have left the student to shift for himself and learn his trade as best he might. [Page 67]

This was my experience in the late 1950s. I didn't realize that the rot had started at least 50 years earlier. As for paintings themselves, probably in reaction to the advent of Modernism, he wrote:

Let us now inquire into the effect resulting from our oft-recurring exhibitions of painting, and see how they influence the painter. So many of the qualities considered essential by our masters are sacrificed for effect. An obtrusive coarseness is now preferred to the velvety surface of the Dutch masters. Scene painting, effective enough on the stage, and perhaps telling on the great walls of out exhibitions, is taking the place of precious workmanship; and, worst of all, these exhibitions engender a never-ending restlessness and love of change. Anything with which to astonish the native! Fashions in painting come and disappear like Paris hats, so that last year's methods are as out of date as the headgear that went with them. Many bids for fame are made by men who, having nothing to say, invent a new language to say it in, and hope that their jargon may be mistaken for originality, as it not infrequently is by the immature critic and the modish amateur.

There is no end to the possibilities of what is known as imagination -- that is, the power to make fresh combinations of existing facts and ideas. But there comes a time when the language, either literary or graphic, in which these ideas are clothed may be considered fully developed, and the purity of it must suffer by the introduction of unsanctioned changes or a breaking away from its accepted law.

There is, however ample scope for the manifestation of distinctive personality within its fairly defined boundaries.

Painting may now be said to have reached its full development. [Pages 69-70]

One oddity he mentions in several place is something he calls a "hand-glass." Examples include:

Refer constantly to your hand-glass, holding it so that your drawing and the model's head can be seen in it at the same time; for it is well-nigh impossible to get the character of your subject without almost constant reference to the glass. [Pages 34-35]

Further than this, I can only advise you, when drawing a face, after having examined its characteristics in the hand-glass, to place your drawing -- if it be of large size -- by the side, or preferably when possible in line under, the face, and to look at it with your eyes half closed. [Pages 53-54]

My guess is that what Solomon calls a hand-glass is what I would call a hand-mirror. Using mirrors to evaluate one's drawing or painting has been a long-time practice. Please let me know if my conjecture regarding his term is mistaken.



posted by Donald at May 4, 2009


The first thing I thought of when I saw those two paintings was Steve Sailer's conjecture that there's some unacknowledged artistic convention of placing lighter skinned females with darker skinned males in a scene. In cases where the actual skin tone of the subjects is similar, shadow and light play may be used to make the man appear darker.

Maybe he was right about that.

Posted by: R.A.W. on May 5, 2009 3:29 AM

Seems plausible to me - a "looking glass". But I have never understood "through a glass darkly": any help to hand?

Posted by: dearieme on May 5, 2009 8:20 AM

For all the technical prowess on exhibit in the Ajax/Cassandra painting, I am at a loss to understand what's supposed to be going on there. I mean, rape, sure. I get it. But, how did they get to where they're at? Ajax is standing with his back to some stone structure, his right foot pressed back against it, all while poor Cassie is straining to escape his rapey gropey grasp. But how did he get there? Did he step up to the thingy carrying Cassandra, then for no reason turn around, and then, also for no reason, push his right foot back? Why? To brace himself and make it easier to keep a hold of the understandably uncooperative Cassie?

This kind of arrangement in pseudo-dramatic poses for the sake of pseudo-dramatic posey arrangement, drives me to distraction. Why would so much technical excellence be expended on the details (yummy to Cassie's skin!), but no attention made to creating a scene that makes any dramatic sense at all?

A lot of modernist criticism of this kind of art claimed it was all about windows opening into stories. This painting deserves that criticism. Ajax is standing so that he can look out at us, nicely framed and posed and muscle-bulgey and rapey and hard and masculine and mean. But really, even as a snapshot of Not Exactly A Love Story, the painting just makes no sense at all.

Posted by: PatrickH on May 5, 2009 9:20 AM


I would assume that the narrative goes something like this: Cassandra in the sudden ruin of Troy has rushed to the statue of a protective goddess, whom she implores for help; meanwhile, her prayers unanswered, the victorious Ajax hoists her unceremoniously on his shoulder and bears her away as booty (or for her booty, or whatever he has in mind.) In other words, the point is not just rape, but the violation of the religious by the irreligious, or the pathos of being abandoned by one's god.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 6, 2009 11:23 AM

Re: Ajax and Cassandra.

Roissy in BC.

Posted by: slumlord on May 6, 2009 5:25 PM

Ah, I get it. She ran to her divine protector, Ajax pursued her, grabbed her, hoisted her up, and has just spun around preparing to carry her off.

Makes sense now. Thanks, Friedrich. So, a really excellent piece of work then, and far more dramatically coherent than I gave it credit for being. Serves me right for not checking out the original story. Crikey! I thought the Ajax in the picture was the big one! Since he died before Troy even fell, my interpretation made no sense right out of the gate.

Posted by: PatrickH on May 6, 2009 11:31 PM

The wife (Cassandra) and the baby (George) most heartily approve of this post. Mr Solomon is vaulting past the French Impressionists to become the favored artist in our household.

Posted by: Reg on May 8, 2009 1:59 AM

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