Simeon Solomon was born in London in 1840 into a middle-class Jewish family, the youngest of the eight children of Meyer Solomon and Katherine (née Levy), an amateur miniature painter. Raised in Bishopsgate, he trained at F. S. Cary’s Academy (1852–56), and in the studio of his elder brother Abraham (1824–1862), who he followed to the Royal Academy Schools (1856–60). Their sister, Rebecca (1832–1886) was also a gifted artist and a regular RA exhibitor, employed as a copyist and drapery painter by John Everett Millais. Simeon made his exhibition debut at the Royal Academy with a drawing at the age of 17, where he showed regularly until 1872.
Two years later he exhibited a controversial oil painting, Moses (Private Collection, New York) but was supported by the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. His earliest works, mostly on Old Testament subjects, were inspired by Jewish culture and tradition. Solomon was introduced to and became a member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle around 1857. In the following decade he regularly exhibited works at the progressive Dudley Gallery, London and was elected a member of the Savile Club.
In 1873 Solomon was arrested in a public lavatory, convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment (subsequently suspended). Without support, he drifted into alcoholism, living on charity and a meagre living as a pavement artist. Following a brief stay in a lunatic asylum, he spent years in the St Giles Workhouse, Holborn, where he died of a heart attack in 1905.
Solomon’s fascination with faith and the the aesthetic qualities of religious ritual often produced work featuring young men in idealised roles as rabbis, priest or acolytes rapt in mystical contemplation. His young Rabbi is shown in synagogue with the ner tamid (everlasting light) behind him, holding a lulav (palm leaf), one of the four species (arbah minim) usually bound together, indicating that this is the festival of Succot. Although the three other plants used in the Succot ritual are missing from the picture, Solomon had probably not witnessed the celebrations since childhood. Nevertheless, his Jewish subject paintings have been called ‘among the best of what is commonly called Jewish art, notwithstanding the fact that the artist, early in life, had become converted from nominal Jewish orthodoxy to a fervent Catholicism’. In 1920 both The Rabbi and Thou Shalt Not Tempt (1894), another charcoal drawing in the Ben Uri Collection, were reproduced in Renesans (‘Renaissance’), the short-lived Yiddish journal, which ran for six issues under the editorship of Leo Kenig drawing on a cohort of writers and artists closely associated with Ben Uri.