Life & Culture

‘This is about women taking charge of their futures’

A new exhibition at the Tate features two Jewish women artists from different eras


Two paintings by Rachel Solomon (Photo: Tate)

The women of history are often little more than shadows - the wife of, the daughter of, the marriage alliance with – but every so often we get a glimpse into their characters. Sometimes we even see what they have left behind.

Now You See Us is a new exhibition at the Tate showcasing the work of women who saw art as more than just a hobby (even if making money from it was forbidden to them) between the years 1520-1920 and two of the key artists had to endure the double whammy of being Jews as well as women.

‘It was regarded as improper for women to have any sort of functioning career as an artist for many years,’ says Tabitha Barber, the curator of the show which showcases the work of 100 women. ‘But what we are trying to do is showcase the work of women who forged professional careers as women.

‘There is this stereotype of women being not very good at art and we want to try and get rid of that idea for good. There were heaps of amazing artists who managed to thrive even if they weren’t allowed to go to art school, were not allowed to be part of the Royal Academy, and were forced into unfashionable areas of art.

‘We want to turn that idea on its head by looking at the hurdles they had to overcome – it is still startling to think that from 1768 to the 1930s only two women, the founder members, were allowed to be members of the Royal Academy. There was this constant prejudice against women – even when something was great the comments would be that the work was ‘very masculine’ or ‘surprisingly good for a woman’.

‘So, there is this fight for recognition. But it is not all doom and gloom; this exhibition is also about women taking charge of their futures and finding a way around all the obstacles.’

Some of the oldest art in the exhibition comes from Jewish artist Catherine da Costa who was born in 16799 and is the oldest known Anglo Jewish artist. Her father Fernando Mendes was a Portuguese doctor who fled the Spanish Inquisition to move to England – which had only recently been opened up again to Jews.

He became physician to the Queen Consort Catherine de Braganza, wife of King Charles II, who was also Portuguese. Catherine, who was named after her father’s royal patron, was born at Somerset House and had an upper middle-class upbringing. Although she was baptized on the orders of the Queen, she was given the Jewish name of Rachel and when she married her cousin Moses da Costa, they appear to have retained a hidden but Jewish life.

Her husband was friends with the French writer Voltaire who recorded an exchange between her and a priest who was trying to convert her in his notebook.

‘Was your God born Jewish?’ Catherine asked.


‘Did he die Jewish?’

‘Yes,’ replied the priest.

‘Well then, become Jewish!’ was Catherine’s answer.

Among Catherine’s tutors was the famous miniaturist and court painter Bernard Lens III who was to have a huge impact on her work.

There are around ten pieces of art – all miniatures - by Catherine still in existence, many kept in the families of her six children. It is believed there are many others as she worked both copying old masters and creating portraits of both her family and those of many in the Jewish community.

‘We have two works by Catherine in our collection,’ says Tabitha. ‘One is a portrait of her son, painted in 1714, and the other is a religious work, a Christian image which is a copy of an old master. It was done at a time when copying old masters was regarded as an important element of art and it is believed that she did this work while studying under Lens. A lot of her work was found in private collections in England and I think that as people become more conscious of her, more of her work will come to light.

‘Finding work from anyone, particularly women, from this time is a true rare survival. Catherine isn’t just there for herself but she also represents the output of many women who would have been doing a similar role.’

There is much more of a body of work from the second Jewish artist in the collection, Rebecca Solomon who worked as a well-respected artist who commanded high fees for her paintings which were often domestic scenes with a subtle political message. She’s regarded as the first female professional Anglo Jewish artist.

Born in 1832, she was born into a large family of eight; her father Michael Solomon was a wealthy merchant who was the first Jew to be honoured with the Freedom of the City of London.

Rebecca’s brothers Simeon and Abraham were also artists and while they were able to go to full time Royal Academy Schools, she trained at the lowlier Spitalfields School of Design where women were trained to make patterns on porcelain. She worked as their apprentice to her older brother before getting work in the studio of John Everett Millais, one of the founders of the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.

She gave money to charities and was active feminist – before the word had been invented – and in 1859 joined a group of 38 other female artists petitioning the Royal Academy of Arts to open its schools to women; a year later the first woman student was admitted.

‘She was a woman with a social conscience who actually did something about it,’ says Tabitha. ‘The fact that she was giving money showed that she had independent means which she was earning through her art which is nice – amazing really.’

While her art is generally of domestic scenes – something women were encouraged to do as it was too lowly for men – her work also comments on class, sexism and racism. In June last year the Tate bought her 1861 work A Young Teacher in which a traditional domestic scene is modified with a young girl teaching her nanny – posed by Jamaican-born muse Fanny Eaton – how to read.

‘She had a good career and was a consistent exhibitor at the Royal Academy from the 1850s onwards,’ says Tabitha. ‘At that time the male painters were focusing on the big narrative scenes – that was regarded as the highest form of art – while women were expected to paint on the smaller scale. But Rebecca was very good at it.’

Her second work of art in the show is called Sherry, Sir and unusually focuses on a maid holding a tray with sherry glasses. ‘In her pieces is she is quietly making a commentary on the social hierarchies that go on in these homes. She’s not focusing on the owners. In Sherry, Sir, the attention is on the working woman, the maid, and in the background is a picture hanging on the wall which references the moral value of work. There are lots of opinions about what she is trying to say in these pieces – they make you think.’

Rebecca never married and the family became attached to scandal in 1873 when Solomon, who was gay, was arrested for sodomy. She died still in her primed aged 54 when she was run over by a cab.

The art of Catherine and Rebecca are snapshots really of the lives of two British Jews who dared to be different but thanks to this new exhibition, their work will see new life; their names will not be forgotten.

· Now You See Us; Women Artists in Britain 1520-1920 will be at the Tate Britain until October 13.

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