Simeon Solomon’s “Toilet of a Roman Lady” is an oil painting featuring the image of a seated woman. Around the woman are there other women in waiting, two are white and one is black. One of the white women is fixing the main woman’s hair and the other seems to be hairpiece which is assumedly to be put on the main woman’s hair after it is done by the other white woman.
The black woman is holding a bottle of perfume and seems to be spraying it on the wrist of the main woman who is stretching out her arm in a lazy way towards the black woman. All of the women are dressed in rich robes and jewelry. To the viewer’s right is a small side table and on it is a statue of a woman and a small bottle. In the background are paintings on a wall, one featuring some individuals, and, another, lighter portion of the wall, featuring a roman tent. Behind the black woman, in the background, is a branch with small leaves, jutting out from the black woman’s right side.
The composition of the painting seems to center attention on the main woman who is served by the three other women. The central figure is well lighted, while the women around her, albeit also richly dressed, seem to be in the shadows. Another element of emphasis is the amount of jewelry on the main woman when compared to that of the three others; she has more jewelry, implying that she must be some kind of royalty. Her facial expression, one that is pensive and distant, is also given emphasis and is complemented by her seemingly lazy posture and gestures.
The artist also uses the technique of perspective to give the painting depth, hence the blurred background to express distance. The placement of the elements of the painting also suggests central balance because while the two other women are on the viewers left, the main woman in the center, and only a white woman on the viewer’s right, this absence of elements on the viewer’s right is offset by the presence of the side table with the statue on it.
The reason for the use of these effects is to achieve a certain degree of realism which was common among renaissance, neo-classical, and classical paintings, which attempted to be as accurate representations of life as possible. Bright, stark colors are used for the clothing of the central figure in the painting, while the three other maid servants seem to be wearing clothes in faded colors. There is a dominance of earthy colors in the clothing of the maid servants which suggests that their clothes were died with naturally occurring pigments, implying their stature in society.
The dominance of deep and bright reds in the clothing of the central figure suggest her affluence, because in the 1800s, red was a pigment that was only easily accessible to rich individuals. The colors on the central figure also help to draw more attention to her, other than the effects of light, shadow, and contrast.
Oil paint is a medium that allows a longer time for the artist to blend and mix the colors on the painting, hence, the possibility of paying more attention to detail. Such is possible because oil paints take a longer time to dry. The technique used by the artist in this particular painting is reminiscent, partly of renaissance paintings, but also conveys certain elements of classicism and realism.
These techniques, while heavily influenced by techniques of earlier art periods, actually have a singular distinction; they are more attentive to theme and to the individual intention of the artist instead of on execution merit. Hence, it is evident that in this particular painting, Solomon was trying to convey themes of eroticism, hence the partially exposed left breast of the Roman woman.
I found the piece interesting because of the interplay of elements in the composition. There are various elements in the painting but they all seem to be harmoniously linked to each other. The painting sends out a message of loneliness as would be seen in the face of the central figure as well as a certain degree of female homosexuality, while, despite being prohibited during Solomon’s lifetime, was secretly existent in the period featured in the painting. Another interesting element in the painting is the faded painting in the background which features men, one of them half-naked. This particular aspect of the painting gives it a homo-erotic feel as well as a voyeuristic element.
This piece may have merited a place in the museum because it is representative of the art of the artist, Simeon Solomon, who was prolific during his time, and was also sought after, except when his public career ended after being caught with another man in a public urinal, and it is representative of the art of the period. Other than this, the excellent state of preservation of the painting also adds to its value. Of course, many other features are apparent in the painting which gives it more value, such as the refinement in the technique as well as the expertise and skill of the artist.
In the matter of high art and low art, while it is often taboo to draw distinctions between these two kinds of art, this particular painting at least, attempts to portray high art, and succeeds. As earlier mentioned, it is painted in the tradition of realism and high art attempts to be as close to reality as possible, hence the presence of eroticism and homoeroticism in the painting.
It does not merely show a scene in the life of the central figure, but it seems to give implications on other circumstances surrounding this particular incident. This particular painting reinforces the existence of the distinction between high and low art simply because the artist himself must have attempted to paint according to earlier conceptions and perspectives of art. In effect, the influence on the artist also has something to do with how the artist perceives and executes his own art.
While the painting is already visually clear, I needed to read some resources to go deeper into the meaning and the messages contained in the painting. The wall text does give a hint on what the painting is all about but I felt the need to learn more about the painting by trying to find other resources that describe the painting. In a way, the wall text helped by giving me some idea about the painting and it was effective in sparking my curiosity and encouraging me to do more research on the painting.
In conveying everything to the viewer, I believe the wall text was not as effective because it opened up more questions for me which had me going through other books and websites to learn more about the artist and the painting. However, even just looking at the painting, I already appreciated the creativity and technique that went into it. Additional research was only required because I wanted to know more about the stories behind the painting.
This particular painting was effective in making me more interested in the period it was done as well as the underlying issues of the artist. It effectively conveyed messages of eroticism and homoeroticism by using such formal techniques as composition and lighting, hence, the almost unnoticeable wall painting of men in the background.
In a way, it conveys how discreet these themes have to be hence the discreet portrayal of elements related to these themes in the painting. All in all, the artist was able to bare his soul in the painting and convey the desired message and intentions by using, not only formalistic artistic elements but also a clever attention to detail and composition.