How the Book is Organized
The Practice of Oil Painting is divided into two parts. In the first, Solomon provides a series of seful exercises to help the student progress from charcoal drawings to full-color oils. Drawing upon his long experience as an instructor, he proposes remedies for common faults in student work. He makes a point of explaining the materials he uses at each stage, such as grounds, palettes, brushes, and paints, and he offers sound methods for achieving accurate measurements of lines and shapes in drawing, and precise relationships of values in painting.
The second section, “The Methods of the Masters,” comprises more than half of the book. It extends the practical advice of the first section by applying the same principles to the work of great artists of the past, such as Van Dyck, Rembrandt, and Velázquez. He analyzes both the strengths and the shortcomings of composition in these works, but he leaves the usual iconographic interpretations to art historians. His is a tour by a working artist for other working artists.
The paintings he selects as examples come mainly from the collection of London’s National Gallery. The original editions of the book showed those works in black and white, but Dover's new edition includes a section with the old master works reproduced in color.
Solomon’s approach to painting
Solomon was a thorough and methodical craftsman, and he practiced what he preached. According to an eyewitness, he spent “an infinity of time over draughtsmanship and composition.”
Eternally dissatisfied, he painted, scraped off, and repainted key figures until they were right. He once destroyed a painting called "Sacred and Profane Love," even after it was accepted and exhibited at the Royal Academy. He was uncompromising in his quest for accuracy of historical detail or realistic lighting. Once, to properly observe the effects of theatrical footlights on a portrait of the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell as “Paula Tanqueray,” he had a replica of the Saint James’s stage erected in his studio, complete with footlights.
What Solomon taught in Oil Painting and Drawing was in some respects consistent with the tradition of academic instruction in Britain. Drawing instruction was based on careful observation of the figure, as well as the emulation of old masters and the study of Greek and Roman sculpture. The Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon in the early 19th century, were available to art students of Solomon’s day. Together with other originals and casts they provided a standard of excellence for all figural work.
By observing classical sculpture, students learned not only to accurately measure proportions and to use tone to suggest three dimensional form, but they also came into contact with the ideals of classical art. Subjects for paintings sprang from the timeless stories of the Greek myths. Many of Solomon’s famous canvases were based on mythology: Niobe, Echo and Narcissus, Venus, and Judgment of Paris. He once said, “Art reached its highest expression in the hands of the Greeks. Their mythology, so rich in imagery, so inspiring for the artist, so beautiful from the aesthetic side, could not fail in the course of time, among a race so sensitive, to produce the wonders both of sculpture and architecture that are unsurpassed and unsurpassable.”
At the same time, Solomon’s teaching methods were notable for their divergence from the practices current at the time in England.
A contemporary reviewer remarked on his “fine sense of drawing and harmonious colour, pitched, as a rule, in rather high keys, due no doubt to his French training.”
Instead of requiring the pupil to follow Solomon's own individual style, his strategy was to equip his students with universal scientific principles and practices that provided a basis by which an aspiring artist could pursue an individual vision. This flexibility and openness to varied styles was consistent with Solomon’s teacher Cabanel, who was said to resist fettering any temperaments or constraining any goals of dissimilar minds.
As Solomon says, “Many roads lead to Rome.”
Alla Prima versus Indirect Painting
Solomon’s British contemporaries Forbes and La Thangue also studied in Paris but they fell more heavily under the influence of the opaque, painterly manner of plein air work, an approach that Solomon refers to as “direct” or “à prima” painting, today more commonly called “alla prima” or “impressionist” handling. Although he was certainly capable of this method and sympathetic to it, he argued that in all but the most capable hands, it tends to lead to chalky, dead mixtures, particularly in skin tones. For his large-scale serious work, Solomon preferred the “prepared” or “indirect” painting method of Rubens, Van Dyck (below) or Titian rather than the bravura brushwork of Hals.
This involved rendering the tones of the figure first in monochrome, and then bringing out the colors of the skin with semitransparent scumbles and glazes. In keeping with the preoccupation with aestheticism in his time, he refers several times to the “decorative” qualities of a painting, by which he means the abstract design, seen apart from the subject matter.
He also acknowledges a method of painting commonly practiced at the École, where the figure is rendered to a finished effect from the top of the canvas to the bottom, area by area, a practice today often called “window shading.” For today’s students weighing the benefits of many different ways of painting, each of which shares a claim to be “academic,” his well reasoned insights into the pros and cons of each approach will be especially valuable.
Tomorrow: Final thoughts on Solomon's book.