Following the success of his Broken Vows and subsequent work, particularly his mediaeval Home After Victory, Philip Hermogenes Calderon (1833–1898) was elected a full member of the Royal Academy in 1867. He was now an established and successful artist, and had helped found the ‘St John’s Wood Clique’, a group of artists who mainly painted modern genre and historical themes, which had social and artistic inspiration from the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
As did other painters of the day, Calderon painted several works based on Shakespeare’s plays and characters. The Young Lord Hamlet (1868) is one of the more unusual, in depicting the title role from this great tragedy in happier days before the death of his father. Hamlet plays the fool to entertain a young child, while three female relatives rest under some trees.
With the River (1869) is another mediaeval scene, showing a young man rowing a beautiful young woman, presumably intended to be his bride. She holds a bunch of flowers, one of which she is dragging across the surface of the water. She appears to be noble, as she is seated on an ornate carpet which dangles over the side of the boat. The boat’s stern is also heavily decorated. Behind the man, in the bows, is a lute.
He looks at her, resting the side of his face on the heel of his palm, as if waiting for her to make up her mind. She seems in no hurry, content to just drift with the river.
Letter from Daddy (1873) is a return to his problem pictures of contemporary life: fewer clues this time, and a theme which he previously considered in his “Lord, Thy Will Be Done” (1855).
A young mother, who appears to have just been breast-feeding, leans low over her baby, both resting on a bed. She wears a full and long gown. Clutched in her left hand are the pages of a letter, which the title tells us has come from the baby’s father. Behind, on a shelf, is a model of a square-rigged ship, implying that the absent father is a sailor (probably an officer) on board. Although centred at a very different social level, the message appears similar.
His undated Mariana apparently shows Act IV Scene I from Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure. This may appear an unusual selection, but Mariana was popular among the painters of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and featured in works by John Everett Millais (1851), Marie Spartali Stillman (1867), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1868-70), and JW Waterhouse (1897). This is a result of Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1830 poem of that title, the theme of which is Mariana’s despondent isolation.
Calderon chooses the original play as his source, and shows Mariana sitting, listening to a song sung by her page-boy. Mariana had been betrothed to Angelo, who as deputy to the Duke of Vienna was ruling the city in the Duke’s absence. However, her dowry had been lost at sea, and he had refused to fulfill the betrothal, leaving Mariana as Tennyson’s despondent isolate.
Through trickery, Angelo ends up having sex with Mariana, believing her to be someone else. Eventually, after a series of switches and turns of the plot, Angelo is forced to marry Mariana.
Calderon indicates through the lily that, at this stage, Mariana remains a virgin, and isolates her from even the viewer by showing her facing away, into the painting.
Also undated, A Rose of Provence appears to have a simpler, if rather naïve, reading, without any underlying narrative. It has cracked badly for a painting little more than a century old, across the passages with dark to black colours.
Summer Berries (1883) appears at first sight to be a simple portrait of a pretty woman, but its puzzle may rest in the arabic script around the large bowl into which she appears to be placing the berries which she picks.
By the time that Calderon painted A Woodland Nymph (1883), though, his narratives seem to have faded in favour of a straightforward nude, but for his next and most important role.
In 1887, Calderon was appointed Keeper at the Royal Academy, a senior role in the British art establishment. He held strong opinions on the importance of teaching anatomy using nude life models, and worked to support this in the Royal Academy Schools. This was the time that Thomas Eakins was doing similar in Pennsylvania; however, whilst this has led to the examination of Eakins behaviour and sexuality, for the moment Calderon’s motives have not be questioned.
St Elizabeth of Hungary’s Great Act of Renunciation (1891) was perhaps his last significant painting, and by far his most controversial. It shows Saint Elizabeth of Hungary (1207-1231) prostrate before an altar, and completely naked, with two nuns and two monks behind her. At present, this painting is so dark that it is hard to see its details. The overlightened image below makes it more clear how shocking Calderon’s painting must have been at the time.
Elizabeth married Louis IV, Landgrave of Thuringia, at the age of just fourteen. She became well-known for her charitable acts, but her husband died of an infection in Italy, when he was on his way to join the sixth crusade, in 1227, when she was still twenty. Elizabeth made solemn vows of celibacy and obedience, and submitted herself to her confessor, a domineering monk named Konrad. Calderon shows Elizabeth at the moment that she vowed that ‘naked and barefoot’ she would follow her ‘naked Lord’, and was drawn from Charles Kingsley’s play The Saint’s Tragedy (1848).
Despite Calderon’s respectable sources, his painting was deemed offensive, particularly to Roman Catholics, who still held Elizabeth in veneration. And not as naked as at one of the Royal Academy Schools’ life classes.
Just as Thomas Eakins’ strong views on painting from life had got him into trouble, so Calderon’s finally brought him problems too.