First Class- The Meeting: And at First Meeting Loved

May 4, 2011

Painting in the later 19th century, or at least aspects of it greatly differed from earlier British artwork, as it commented on Victorian life and society. Before the influences of Realism became prominent throughout European art, paintings were more often created for rich patrons, and included extravagant portraits, and historical or religious scenes. The main image in question ‘First Class’ by mid-Victorian Realist Abraham Solomon explores themes that were more current in the Victorian era, such as gender roles, social disparity, the industrial revolution, and possibility of travel.

Solomon was born in London in 1823. His family were one of the first Jewish families to be given full civil and political rights in the city of London.  The Solomons were a creative family, and of eight siblings, three became successful artists. Abraham Solomon was initially a historical genre painter, but themes of his later works became more contemporary. His narrative paintings were particularly popular and were often turned into engravings. ‘Waiting for the verdict’, and ‘The Acquittal’ were engraved in mezzotint by William Henry Simmons in 1866, nine years after being painted.

What was it in particular about Solomon’s paintings that appealed to the Victorians so directly?  The boundaries of British art were much more specific before the influence of Realism. The figures in Solomon’s series are people of quotidian Victorian society, meaning they could relate to these everyday images, the idea of everyday life and characters inspiring art made it more accessible.

‘First Class- The Meeting: And at First Meeting Loved’ the first of the series Solomon painted in 1854, gives us an insight into Victorian life and the upper and lower classes. It presents us with a romantic scenario, the idea of love at first sight. A young man gazes at a beautiful young woman travelling with her Father on the train, who is sleeping, oblivious. She smiles, and appears to be very comfortable in this stranger’s company, clearly enjoying and engaging with the flirtation. The warm colours are reflected in their rich clothing and on the elaborate upholstery. The soft light from the outside sunset illuminates the face of the young woman, making it more central. The gaze of the young man and red reflection of the sunlight shining through the curtain make the composition very clever. These features make us focus on her; they work almost as arrows, directing our attention.

‘Second class- The Parting’ was painted one year later and although both paintings are part of a series, they are greatly contrasting. While first class creates a warm romantic vibe using reds yellows and oranges, the colours in ‘Second Class’ are far colder. The Decor of the carriage is harsher, the carriage is more mechanistic, there are no cushioned seats, and the people are wearing poorer, less lavish clothes. These aspects help to create the darker mood of this painting, in which a lower class mother parts with her son, who is trying to make his fortune by emigrating. It is the lack of money specifically that is parting them, this pain and sorrow is something the three more privileged Victorians in ‘First Class’ would not be able relate to. After analysing both parts of the series together, one can begin to understand how the artist viewed these people from different social backgrounds, but also the general stereotypes of what took place within these classes.  In the Victorian era the gap between the rich and poor was colossal, while the poor struggled and suffered, ending up workhouses, the rich basked in their fortune. ’First Class’ suggests the rich to be happy and carefree people, while ‘Second Class’ highlights the ordeals that the less fortunate went through.

‘First Class’  visually has a greater sense of positivity in comparison to ‘Second Class’ , the first painting of this series however caused much controversy and was criticised by Punch and Art Journal for being too suggestive. What exactly was it that offended the Victorian onlookers? Perhaps the romantic chemistry between the figures was too prominent, and would not have been tolerated in the Victorian era. Alternatively the most offensive aspect could have been the position of the young woman’s father, her supposed figure of authority.

By Victorian standards both the young lady and man in this painting were acting immorally. If the man wanted to marry her, he would be expected to ask for her father’s permission. The young lady would be expected to obey her father’s wishes indefinitely, out of respect and honour. The Victorian onlookers enjoyed the narrative in paintings, but this image presented by Solomon challenged and conflicted with the etiquette.
The young girl in ‘Second Class – The Return’ appears far more subservient, she leans back slightly, and seems reserved in her feelings. Her previous ease and confidence in her conversation with the young man has vanished, her expression is coy and unsure. She is no longer the dominant figure, and her position in the painting follows Victorian gender ideals more closely.

The creation of a second version of ‘First Class’ indicates Victorian Society was unprepared for this more modern image of a man and woman openly flirting. Although British artist William Hogarth had painted controversial social scenes a century earlier, this type of painting that commented on society was still often rejected. The corruption of morals displayed in the original ‘First Class’ proved too much. The new version of the painting at the time symbolised the morals that the Victorians supposedly held, they could look at this new more morally acceptable version and feel more comfortable. The original ‘First Class’ however could be seen as a symbol of the later liberalisation of British society. This liberalisation that began in the later end of the 19th century continued throughout 20th century.

If Solomon among other artists did not present the public with these social challenges, our society, and our own ideals and morals would not be what they are today. Paintings that presented social or moral issues were not immediately accepted by the academy, but due to the persistence and individualisation of artworks throughout this time attitudes eventually altered and became more liberal.   Although Solomon lived and worked around fifty years before modernism began, it is possible see links between the narrative in his work, and the use of brutally honest and sometimes shocking themes shown in contemporary works of today.


3 Responses to “First Class- The Meeting: And at First Meeting Loved”

  1. Fascinating and knowledgeable blog. How do I subscribe to it?

  2. jacqueline Says:

    I have a print of this picture and wonder what kind of price I could sell for ?

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