Historical genre painter Solomon Alexander Hart was born into a Jewish family in Plymouth, England in 1806 and has been called ‘the first important Anglo-Jewish artist’; his father, Samuel (fl. 1785-1830), and younger brother, Mordecai (1808-1841), were well-known engravers. Barred from the local Grammar School because of his Jewish origins, Hart was taught by a Unitarian minister and, unable to afford an apprenticeship premium, learned to draw by copying ancient sculptures at the British Museum. In 1823 he entered the Royal Academy (RA) to study painting, supporting himself by making copies and colouring theatrical prints. His earliest painting, a portrait miniature of his father, was shown at Somerset House in 1826, the year he also began exhibiting at the RA; he showed his first oil painting, 'Instruction', there in 1828. In 1830 he showed his first works on Jewish subjects, 'The Elevation of the Law' (Suffolk Street Gallery) and 'Polish Synagogue' at the Society of British Artists – the latter was well received and brought him many commissions. His 'Conference between Manasseh ben Israel and Oliver Cromwell', bought by F. D. Mocatta, was presented to Jews’ College London but later lost during the Blitz in 1940-41.
Hart was elected an Associate Royal Academician in 1835 and became the first Jewish Royal Academician in 1840, Professor of Painting (1854–63), and finally, librarian in 1864; he was also an active member of the Athenaeum. Celebrated as a painter of historical scenes, he visited Italy, c.1841–42, making an elaborate series of drawings later used for works on Italian themes. An influential figure, Hart was also curator of the Painted Hall, Greenwich, and an adviser to the British and South Kensington museums. Among his friends were J. M. W. Turner and Sir William Collins, who is said to have introduced him to his children saying: ‘This is Mr Hart, whom we have just elected Academician [...] Mr Hart is a Jew, and the Jews crucified our saviour, but he is a very good man for all that, and we shall see something more of him now’.
Hart was a member of the Western Synagogue; he died in London, England on 11 June 1881 and is buried, like his father, at the Brompton Cemetery in London. His memoirs were edited by his Athenaeum colleague Alexander Brodie and published posthumously in 1882 as ‘The Reminiscences’. His work is held in UK collections including the Jewish Museum London, the Laing Art Gallery, The Royal Academy of Arts and the V&A.