Essex County Chronicles
---- — While preparing for an upcoming lecture on early 20th-century Salem artists who were neighbors or friends or both, I happened upon a blog posting by Donna Segar, a member of the history department faculty at Salem State University and a resident of Chestnut Street in Salem.
The subject of the article was Isaac Henry Caliga, a well-known painter of portraits and genre scenes who had also lived for a time on Chestnut Street. Isaac quickly became the obsession of the week, and further research made it clear that he was a man on the move and a man in the news, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.
The artist was born Isaac Henry Stiefel in Auburn, Ind., in 1857. He eventually headed east and studied art at the famed Art Students League in New York and in Munich, Germany, before settling in the Boston area. In January 1890, Henry legally changed his last named to Caliga in a Boston court.
Three years later, Caliga wed Phoebe Woodman, a niece of John Greenleaf Whittier, at Oak Knoll, the Danvers estate her family had shared for nearly 16 years with the poet. Phoebe had made The New York Times a few years earlier when she mysteriously disappeared after a “grievance” with her aunts and resurfaced in Saginaw, Mich. The couple would have two sons. By 1901, the family was living at 1 Chestnut St. in Salem. After a brief stay at that address, they moved a few blocks away to 130 Federal St. and then eventually to 142 Federal. Isaac also maintained a studio in Boston.
Along the way, Henry built a top-flight collection of antique Colonial pewter. According to author Mary Northend, an authority on such matters, “several of the pieces (in his collection) are numbered among the choicest in the country.” Caliga also managed to acquire a U.S. patent while living on Federal Street, in 1910, for improvements to the design of the automobile fender.
Caliga’s career was beginning to take off about the time he arrived in Salem, as is evidenced by his participation in many major American annual art shows of the era and the many books he would illustrate over the next decade. In 1903, the artist made national headlines when there was speculation that his painting “Guardian Angel,” then on exhibit in Chicago, had been copied directly from one done by the popular New Hampshire artist Abbott Thayer. Eventually, the mystery was solved and Caliga’s name was cleared. It turned out Thayer had never executed a similar painting, he had just been erroneously credited in an unnamed periodical as being the creator of Caliga’s “Guardian Angel.”
But the work would continue to haunt Caliga for years to come. The artist sued the publisher of the Chicago Tribune for printing, without his permission, an image of “Guardian Angel” in their newspaper. The case eventually was decided in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1909 in favor of the paper. Apparently, Caliga had copyrighted the painting under the “Guardian Angel” title in October 1901. A short time later, the artist made some minor changes to the angel’s wings in the painting, changed the title and filed a new copyright on the piece. Unfortunately for Caliga, the high court deemed the work to be essentially the same painting, and for that reason the second copyright, the basis for the artist’s lawsuit, was invalid.
Just as the court case was coming to an unhappy ending, so was Caliga’s marriage. The couple separated by 1910 and lived apart for three years before Caliga sued for divorce. The artist cited his undying respect for his wife and stated in the national press that he was freeing her to live the life she wanted to live. He admitted that his artistic temperament had been largely responsible for the failure of their relationship.
Caliga would stay in Salem for a few more years before relocating to Provincetown, which he had discovered in the late 1890s. He would remarry and remain an active member of the community’s art scene until his death in 1934. He left behind, in his art, a number of reminders that he had once lived here, including portraits of Matthew Robson and Mrs. George “Aunt Scotty” Binney of Salem and Alfred Putnam of Danvers.
Salem historian Jim McAllister is a regular contributor to these pages.