Daily Archives: June 4, 2012

An Adaptable Artist

I am indeed surrounded by the former homes of Salem painters from a century ago, with Frank Benson’s and Philip Little’s houses across the street and the home of a particularly prolific painter, Isaac Henry Caliga (1857-1944) nearly next door. I continue to wonder what Salem’s pre-war (World War I), pre-fire creative community was like. Of all the Salem artists that I’ve written about here, Caliga is the most difficult to categorize and pin down:  his works encompass everything from Sargent-like portraits to pastel drawings to illustrations for turn-of-the-century romance novels.  Unlike Benson and Little, he did not come from a wealthy New England family, but rather from a Midwestern family of German immigrants (apparently his unusual last name was a latinized version of the family name “Steifel”).  He did not summer in the Maine or New Hampshire, but rather on Cape Cod, in the company of the earliest members of an emerging artists’ colony in Provincetown.  To my knowledge, he never painted a maritime scene, unless you count the outer Cape dunes.

Caliga was born in Indiana and trained in New York and Munich.  By the later 1880s he was in Boston, and after the turn of the century he was residing in Salem, in a stately Italianate house at the eastern end of Chestnut Street. What drew him here I do not know, but I found several juried art exhibitions in which he was presenting and Benson was judging, perhaps the latter was the link. There are scattered references to his activities over the next few decades–references to restoration work and a centennial celebration Hawthorne portrait in the Collections of the Essex Institute, brief summaries of his career in The New England Magazine and Who’s Who in America, pictures of his pewter collection in American Homes and Gardens, trial records for the successful defense of his copyrighted Guardian Angel illustration (which seems to have been extremely popular–hence the copyright infringement–but which I cannot find), mentions of his participation in Charles Hawthorne’s Cape Cod School of Art, and a notice of his 1924 marriage to Provincetown printmaker Elizabeth Howland. He was clearly no dilettante, but a working artist who sought “serious” commissions while simultaneously engaging in illustration work—lots of illustration work.

First, the serious paintings:  society portraits and a few genre paintings.

Portrait of John J. Enneking, 1884 (Vose Galleries, Boston); Portrait of  Thomas Allen, 1885 (WalkerCunningham Fine Art); Portrait of Mrs. William Kesson Vanderbilt (Simpson Galleries); The Pink Kimono, 19101915 (Brock & Co.); The Politicians, n.d. (Sotheby’s).

Then there are the illustrations, rendered for books that were hardly classics but probably pretty popular:  early examples of “women’s fiction” catering to an audience that was quite different from his society patrons.  He seems to have been working full-time for Little, Brown in Boston during the first decade of the twentieth century, turning out illustrations for such provocative titles as The Awakening of the Duchess by Fannie Charles (1903), A Detached Pirate:  the Romance of Gay Vandeleur by Helen Milecete (1903), The Effendi:  a Romance of the Soudan by Florence Brooks Whitehouse (1904), A Woman’s Will by Anne Warner (1904), and The Castle of Doubt by John Whitson (1907). A middle-aged divorcée is romanced!  Romance in the desert!  Romance on the high seas! Caliga’s name is always featured very prominently on the title pages and in accompanying advertising:  I do wonder if his artistic reputation suffered a bit because of this rampant commercialism?

Evidently not.  Caliga’s obituary in The New York Times (18 October 1944) focuses exclusively on his portraits:  Provincetown, Massachusetts.  Isaac Henry Caliga, widely-known as a portrait painter and the oldest member of the art colony here, died yesterday on Cape Cod after a week’s illness.  His age was 88.  Born in Auburn, Indiana, he studied in Europe and formerly lived in Salem. Among his portraits are those of the late President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, Governor Alexander Rice, which now hangs in the State House, Boston, and James B. Colgate, financier, which is in the New York Chamber of Commerce.  Two images of Caliga’s Massachusetts life, his Salem house and the Cape Cod dunes, are below.

Truro Dunes, 1890.  Boston Art Club.

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