The picture, A Young Teacher (1861), depicts a young girl teaching her family’s servant how to read. The model for the servant was Fanny Eaton (1835-1924), the Jamaican-born artist's model known for sitting for Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood artists.
Eaton was born in Jamaica before moving with her mother, a formerly enslaved woman, to England when she was a teenager. She married a cab driver and they had 10 children and she worked as a model and domestic servant in London.
Princeton paid a hammer price of £240,000 at the March 23 (Women) Artists sale in London (£302,400 including buyer’s premium) against an estimate of £20,000-30,000. It was purchased with support from the Surdna Fund.
The price was major auction record for Solomon, almost 10 times more than any work sold previously according to Artprice.
A Young Teacher is the second work in Princeton’s collections in which Eaton appears as the central figure, the first being Walter Fryer Stocks’s chalk drawing of Eaton (c.1859), acquired in 2016.
Rare and important
The museum described the picture as a “rare and important example of the work of the first professional Jewish woman artist in Britain”.
James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum, added: “As an empathetic portrayal of a woman of colour by a Jewish woman dating from Victorian Britain, A Young Teacher is an exceedingly rare and important art historical document.
“Beyond the fact that there is a technical skill evident in the execution of the painting for which Rebecca Solomon is often not credited, we can find in it a remarkable sense of empathy—one woman operating at the margins in Victorian England depicting another with great compassion and insight.”
Solomon was one of three siblings from a well-to-do Jewish family in London who all became artists. She worked with her older brother Abraham and her younger brother Simeon Solomon (1840-1905) was also associated with the Pre-Raphaelites.
A Young Teacher was first exhibited in 1861 at Henry Wallis’s French Gallery in London and later in Liverpool in 1862.
However its provenance for the next century is lost. According to Sotheby’s it resurfaced in 1964 when the grandparents of the current vendor were given the painting by a former employer (Mr and Mrs Baynes) for whom they had worked as a housekeeper and gardener. The employer lived on the Isle of Wight where Solomon also lived in later life.
It was ‘rediscovered’ in the mid-1980s when the Geffrye Museum and Birmingham City Art Gallery held an important exhibition on the Solomon family of artists and the current owners contacted the curators to share this painting with them.
It then became an important addition to the canon of Solomon's work and was most recently seen publicly in the exhibition Pre-Raphaelite Sisters at the National Portrait Gallery in 2019.
Solomon’s last recorded exhibition was in 1874. In 1886, Solomon died aged 54, from injuries sustained after being run over by a hansom cab on the Euston Road in London.