In a small, delicate watercolor from 1864, the Archaic Greek poet Sappho embraces the poet Erinna, their lips nearly touching. Sappho’s longing is plain on her face, while Erinna, heavy-lidded, eyes the viewer, her dress slipping off her shoulder.
The painting, “Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene,” is likely one of the first depictions of same-sex female desire made for a gallery-going audience in the West, and the painter Simeon Solomon, was a gay Jewish artist living in Victorian England whose work has been nearly forgotten.
Solomon, who was associated with the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite movement, had his career cut short when he was arrested twice for same-sex liaisons with men (in 1873 and 1874), at the apogee of his fame, and it tragically changed the course of his life.
For the past 25 years, Dr. Roberto C. Ferrari, curator of art properties at Columbia University’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, has been one of the few contemporary scholars to study Solomon’s work and introduce it to wider audiences, by founding the Simeon Solomon Research Archive.
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Today, though his work is still not widely known, Solomon is considered a cult figure of gay and queer art history. Since Ferrari began work on the archive in 2000, more attention has been brought to the artist’s pictures, including a traveling 2005 retrospective, and in 2017, Tate’s exhibition “Queer British Art 1861–1967” placed Solomon as…