Nineteenth-century British artists, perhaps more than those of any other nation, traveled extensively throughout the Continent, North Africa, and the Near East supplying visual records of monuments, places, and people. This phenomenon resulted from the isolation of the British Isles and was a continuation of the eighteenth-century tradition of the Grand Tour, in which nobles and gentry frequently engaged the services of an accompanying watercolorist to document sites. The first Jewish member of the Royal Academy, Solomon Alexander Hart, following the lead of his countrymen-for example, J. M. W. Turner and David Roberts-visited Italy in 1841-42 and made an elaborate series of drawings of historical sites and architectural interiors, which he hoped to publish.
Although the publication of these works never came to fruition, the studies provided Hart with the basis for numerous future canvases. Three of his entries to the Royal Academy in 1850 demonstrate his likely use of these studies: Interior of a Church in Florence; Interior, St. Mark's, Venice; and The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law, a view of the interior of the Leghorn (Livorno) synagogue. The inspiration for Hart's Italian tour, his proposed publication, and his depiction of ecclesiastical interiors may indeed have come from the example of the well-traveled and prominent British painter David Roberts, who was Hart's neighbor in London. Roberts had in 1837 published a portfolio of Spanish scenes, similar to Hart's later proposed Italian one, which included church interiors. Several of Roberts's interiors were shown at the Royal Academy between 1836 and 1850. In fact, Roberts exhibited three church interiors along with Hart's similar subjects at the same 1850 hanging at the Royal Academy.
One of Hart's works listed in the 1850 Royal Academy exhibition catalogue appears to be the painting now in the collection of The Jewish Museum. It may be based on an 1845 entry of the same title. Using one of the artist's few observations of a Jewish structure during his Italian tour, the work shows the interior of the magnificent synagogue in Leghorn, originally built in 1591. This interior is perhaps the foremost example of the lavish redecoration common to Italian synagogues in the eighteenth century. Hart captures a romantic vision of the exotic dress of his Italian coreligionists as they parade the scrolls of the Law on Simhat Torah, the feast of the rejoicing of the Law. This marks the end of the fall harvest festival, Sukkot, and is the holy day on which the yearly cycle of reading the Pentateuch ends, immediately beginning again with Genesis.
Hart's other Jewish subjects reveal his ability to cleverly use his artistic resources and his visibility at the Royal Academy to demonstrate Judaism's cultural currency. Yet in his long and distinguished submission of entries to the Royal Academy, he seems always to temper his Jewish themes with English and Christian ones. This sensibility to social and religious equity was triggered by the issue of civil rights for English Jews, which was debated by Parliament in 1833. Hart's aforementioned 1850 Royal Academy entries are examples of this balance in Christian and Jewish ecclesiastical interiors. Historical themes, so popular during the 1830s, could serve as an expression of his patriotism-for example, Sir Thomas More Receiving the Benediction of His Father (1836). He connects Englishness with Jewishness in The Conference of Menasseh ben Israel and Oliver Cromwell. Similar nationalistic sentiments pervade Hart's literary themes, which are chosen from masterpieces of English prose and poetry such as Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice and Scott's Ivanhoe, whose central characters are Jewish.