The Princeton University Art Museum has acquired a significant work by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Rebecca Solomon. The work, A Young Teacher (1861), shows a domestic scene in which a young girl is teaching her family’s servant how to read. Solomon was one of a small number of women artists of the era whose work was shown at the Royal Academy of Arts, and she is considered to be England’s first professional Jewish woman artist. The model who sat for the servant figure was Fanny Eaton, a young Black woman who modeled for a number of significant painters of the period.
“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,” says James Steward, director of the Princeton University Art Museum. “This is of a piece with Solomon’s work as a reformer; she was one of a group of women artists who petitioned the Royal Academy schools to admit women, which indeed happened in 1860, just a year before she made this painting.”
Eaton was most likely introduced to Solomon through her brother Simeon Solomon, who was also a painter and who also employed Eaton as a model. A good amount is known about Eaton’s biography—she was born in Jamaica in 1835 before moving with her mother, a formerly enslaved woman, to England when she was a teenager. Eaton and her husband, a cab driver, had ten children together, and she supplemented his income with her modeling work. She became an in-demand model for the Pre-Raphaelites, posing for Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, Albert Moore and others.
A Young Teacher was first exhibited in 1861 at Henry Wallis’s French Gallery in London, where it received praise from critics but did not sell. It was shown in Liverpool the following year with an asking price of £64, roughly £8,280 today, but it’s unclear whether or not it sold. According to Sotheby’s, ownership history is lost from that moment until 1964, when the grandparents of the most recent owner were gifted the painting by an employer.
The painting was bought by the museum in March at Sotheby’s, where it sold for £302,400 (with fees)—or ten times its high estimate. “We had no doubt that it was going to go well above its estimate; works of this kind are in great demand by both institutions and private collectors,” says Steward. “It was only a question of how many other prospective buyers wanted it as much as or more than we did. I believe it set a new record for the artist at auction—as it should. It’s exemplary in her work.”
In 1873, Solomon’s brother was arrested for “homosexual offenses” and the ensuing scandal effectively ended the art careers of both siblings. In 1886, at age 54, she was struck by a horse-drawn cab and died.