November 16, 2018

The Romantic Hart


It is rather unusual to think of Jewish artists as anything but extravagant or puzzling, yet there are always the rare exceptions, which mind you are a welcomed break from the extraordinary pieces we are usually accustomed to. The romantic Solomon Alexander Hart, whose work is a cross between European realism and Jewish melancholia, is an example of just that.

The style, colors, and mood of one of his most famous works: “The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, Italy”, reminds the viewer of the prefabricated romanticism of 19th century Europe. The eye is immediately drawn to the main character which makes him the centerpiece of the painting. His very figure, clothes, as well as arrogant strut all seem to place him inside some European court setting. The painting could be found in the Palace of Versailles’ endless halls, amid its vast collections, only to blend comfortably within the systemic realistic style, with the only difference being that it depicts a scene where Jews are praying in a Shul, and the man is covered in a tallit and is carrying a Torah. Unheard of? No, not really.

Solomon Alexander Hart made it his joy to paint Jewish settings, and more importantly in the style that he was educated in. Namely realism. Something that was already saturated with popularity by the mid 19th century, it was the romantic and its flares more than anything else that caught the eye of viewers, and Hart as any ambitious painter wanted to reach out to as many people as possible. However he did more than that, he managed to fuse Jewish content with an European style to create an array of works.

Born in Plymouth, England in 1806 into a modest family, he grew up with a normal Jewish education, something which would stay with him for the rest of his life. Hart was also the first Jew to ever be admitted as a member of the Royal Academy, which was the prestigious art university where all the big-shot fancy English artists studied, taught, and lectured not only on the aesthetics of art, but also on the perplexing nature of it’s theories.

Hart made a name for himself with his above-average talent in relation to his peers, but what really made him unique was the fact that he was Jewish. Although England was bustling with Jewish artists at the time, it seems that his more European-styled paintings gained him the respect of the English public as well as that of the faculty at the Academy- which undoubtedly had made a social leap by letting a Jew amid their ranks. Let us not forget after all, this was during the Victorian age, where the term “stiff-upper lip” does not suffice to describe the period. After Hart made a living as a painter for a few years he soon gained a teaching position at the Academy, as well as a post as a librarian(a profession which was once far more respected than it is today).

His works derive from a very traditional style of realistic painting, but also with the romanticism that only pretentious literature could possibly make sense of. This, of course, was the time when the Impressionists did not yet take hold of Europe’s gaze and awe, but it was also the period when the art community was still fixated on the idea that art was meant to fill royal exhibition halls throughout Europe’s courts. Although Hart might have built his foundation on these principles, his works were still quite unique and indicative of his own style.

Throughout his life he continued to paint both Jewish subjects but also more conventional English ones, such as his numerous portraits which I suspect were the means by which he made most of his living from. The best example of this being his portrait of Sir David Salomons, the first Jewish sheriff and officially elected mayor in London's history. Although this might come as surprise to you, the truth is that England was somewhat less anti-Semitic than most other nations in Europe at the time, which is a reason why people like Solomon Hart could excel in what they did best.

Yet the issue of being both British and Jewish was never a problem for Hart, or really most Jews at the time, as they saw themselves as both things, and never as a part of two mutually exclusive identities. That is why the experience of “Jewishness” is so fascinating, not only historically but also in our own contemporary. Hart is a delightful example of the way the very concept of being Jewish, or even Judaism as a religion was and is molded culturally into different and unique entities. This, of course, not only at the collective level, but even individually for each and every person. In other words, Hart’s paintings are both Jewish and British, and maybe even a bit bourgeois, but that is okay, because that is what they are.