RUTH AND NAOMI - THE CALDERON BLUNDER ? |
The fine artistic interpretations by Philip Hermogenes Calderon are of as high a standard as anything among his contemporaries. Born in France in 1833, he was keeper of the Royal Academy for a while and his works compared to the likes of Alma Tadema , Frederick Leyton, Lexden Pocock, Frederick Goodall, among others who populated the art world in the second half of the 19th. century stand on a well deserved plinth. His paintings hang in galleries throughout the world not to mention The London Tate and the Walker Gallery in Liverpool. The painters of the time (between 1860 and 1904), knew and loved or hated each other but socialized in their best interests (not to mention a few stolen glimpses of techniques and brushwork which could enhance their own works). It is not difficult to imagine the frustration and reactions of some with fixed ideas and a nose for competition in a world overflowing with industrial money - loose change ready to be seen to be invested in the sort of things the uneducated could not appreciate or often, not afford. Victorian false values were a feature of the age. The mansions , built by the flamboyant top architects of the time were sources of good premiums for decorative, distinctive paintings. These were the places where top 19th. century artists with revolutionary techniques laid their laurel wreaths for future generations to invest in and where others, however proficient,did not always venture to hang theirs. An unfinished work could be an appellative that could destroy a reputation,insinuating that the artist could not take it further . This is not to say that differences in approach to presentation requirements were not a consideration or that the very space in which they would hang demanded both perspective and specific techniques.
Modern art today, in its limitless forms of expression, peculiarly dominates the world of interior design even with antique furnishings, but for the Victorian, or Edwardian merchants with money to burn and social status to seek, elegant sufficiency was the order of the day. It was the name that mattered. George Frederick Goodall was an example of what they wanted to associate with and even today this artist decorates the homes of the rich and famous with the tasteful compositions,colourful subjects and exotic backgrounds that the Egyptologists had fascinated the world with as far back as the finds of Lord Carnarvon, not to mention David Roberts with his amazing drawings.
Goodall provided all of that they needed. His style of contribution to the art world was perhaps a mixture of commercial and academic polish which determined how long he was prepared to dedicate to his “products” and how many popular works and versions could be launched among gallery collectors and designers. Despite being much sought after by serious collectors who frown at anything that could be called loose and "not academic" in the strictest sense of the word ”, much of Goodall´s work fits the academic and decorative bill.
Goodall´s works carry him across the board of contemporary works of art – portraits – landscapes – religious narrative and street scenes, but the exotic backgrounds of those mysterious and haunting Oriental paintings made him rich and famous. His efforts, even today, get a guaranteed second glance but with price tags that drive decorators to prints and modern copies. Auction prices are high. His paintings, in the main, were designed to decorate with pleasing colours and soft lights. They were designed to enhance furniture and classical decorative fixtures in the heavily curtained parlours of his days. He was not merely fascinated by the scenic backdrops of Arabic culture, but recognized the impact of archeology on the general reading public. These setting often gave his biblical narrative,fitting frames to known legendary figures of the religious past
The Calderon Mystery.
But what has this got to do with a classical Royal Academy Keeper born in France of Spanish Stock and called Philip Calderon ? Simply, that at least one of his works has not only left a sense of bewilderment in the eyes of the art world, but appears to all intents and purposes to have got tangled up with that of our “Orientalist”, Frederick Goodall, without as much as leaving any clues as to how and why this could be. The enigma is still be solved. In 1885, The Royal Academy of Arts hanged what was hailed as an unusually different Calderon contribution. It was a large canvas titled “Ruth and Naomi” (since recent controversies the name has been changed to Boaz, Ruth and Naomi which makes it worse since none of the figures are aged. The dark servant could be Oprah.
The desert theme is well known in old testament literature and important in so far as the religious institutions trace the genealogy of Jesus to Ruth and her husband Boaz. One particularly well painted biblical anecdote refers to the request by a widowed Ruth of her aged mother in law (Naomi) to stay by her side – “where you go I will go”. The Calderon painting of “Ruth and Naomi” has been mistakenly attributed to a particular relationship beautifully rendered in scores of famous works of art. The exquisite presentation by many famous artists of the time bear no resemblance to the course approach, if indeed it were so, in the painting in question. Amazingly however, in this painting it is quite clear that the figure that so called Ruth is embracing so artificially, is a man. The Calderon exhibition declaration is that the painting is that of Ruth clinging amorously to her mother in law which led to the conclusion by many that it was the first indication of Lesbian love in biblical history. The conclusion led to varied and often aggressive claims against the painting and the artist but careful study of all versions on the market, many of which vary very little, indicate that this has nothing to do with that bible story because it does not fit descriptions of the people involved in any way. The tall figure the so called Ruth is embracing theatrically, looks nothing like an aged Naomi and more like a tall unamused man. The man is not happy at all and appears to be pushing her away with embarrassment . A demure figure carrying a ground mat watching from some distance away on the dirt track to the palm fringed hills, looks down nervously. This distant figure looks like a servant and in Calderon´s painting she is near black. In others monogrammed by Goodall (at least three and of the same period as that of Calderon, both the female figures are obviously white skinned. The mystery therefore conspires to tease and when dealing with a painting that causes discomfort in so many areas, it provokes explanations which curiously have never been given by the art world and least of all by the Walker Gallery in Liverpool which houses the “original” Calderon. The gallery only offers black and white photographs for some inexplicable reason which makes it all the more difficult to compare brushwork between them.
Popular Bible interpretations
In the more popular bible stories, Ruth, we are told, had slept near Boaz in the cover of darkness, prompted by her mother in law, Naomi, who wished her a sound, protected future with a widowed “brother” of her late son and husband of Ruth. Ruth it appears could ethically lie at her brother-in-law´s feet while he slept, as a sign of offer and Boaz may well have not remembered what she looked like when he met her formally on his return trip to the area. The name which Calderon gave to his unsigned painting does not include Boaz but simply calls the composition Ruth and Naomi (her mother in law) The claim of the Calderon painting, is that it is another version of Ruth clinging to Naomi with an unknown in the background.- hence the Lesbian attribution and social furore.
Another anecdote among many regarding this biblical incident and which perhaps throws some light on the subject is that an insecure Ruth, concerned about becoming another concubine or sexual chattel of a man she did not know well, had urged her mother in law to stay by her for mutual protection. Since Naomi was much happier with her remarrying and finding her own future (possibly also living close to them) she had urged her to give him a chance. Determined to find out what she would be marrying and after the initial encounter in the darkness, she apparently asked Oprah, a servant, to dress in fineries and pretend to greet Boaz as herself. Meanwhile, dressed as the servant Ruth, she could look on and interpret his reaction to blatantly superficial behavior. It would give her the necessary insight into his sensitivity. That, appears to be what is happening in the picture. The question then arises as to whether Calderon was sufficiently interested or involved in biblical research to be able to interpret these issues correctly. It appears from other works that he was not. He also created a great deal of discomfort with his painting of the nude St. Bridget at the altar and therefore not too concerned about historical accuracy. I seems likely that he was obviously more interested in face value impact and commercial techniques. The glaring mistake in his Ruth and Naomi implies that it was not his painting but an original copy of another whose creator appeared to know the subject matter much better. This original and contemporary work appears to be by the artist Frederick Goodall and whose paintings of exactly the same scene are clearly monogrammed FG in his distinctive style. Despite there being different “original versions” the minor changes could well go unnoticed but the Goodall servant/Ruth is light skinned as she should be if the story of “ deceit” is to be understood properly. The waiting Ruth in the guise of the servant could not be black by European interpretation. The Calderon version is much larger than any of the others signed by Goodall and the dominant male figure sports a distinctive, grey cloak as opposed to the others which display a rich blue one.
Academic criticism of the work.
The hanging of the Calderon painting at the Royal Academy was severely criticized and the pinkish hue which appeared to glaze it was perhaps too innovative for the Pre Raphaelite period. It was described as gimmicky and the work perplexing. If Calderon copied Goodall, the so called Goodalls are described by the trade, for some reasons, as not being good enough for his hand. All in all, a whole web of intrigue since all the paintings apart from modern amateurish copies, are very elegant and beautifully illuminated with this pinkish light in perhaps a subtler way than the supposed Calderon original.
Goodall´s paintings were designed to complement and lend elegance to the furnishing fineries of the day. Greek and Roman columns and occasional Arabic arches vied against those open wall spaces begging for colourful interpretations that would bring warmth and homeliness into the place. The church had chosen its ceilings to perform a similar function but in Victorian days those had been replaced by the stucco ceiling marvels we can see today.
Bu what was going on with respect to what appears to be contemporaries copying each other in plain view of the artistic cognoscenti of the period ? Calderon - Keeper of the Academy itself could hardly have had his painting chosen for public view when there were apparent copies by another artist around ? - And if this had been done inadvertently, surely there would have been chronicles of the period pointing to this ? It is this that insinuates that perhaps the original painter of the scene was George Frederick Goodall who may well have sold or given him his original, vowing not to disclose the secret of a future copy. Calderon was the sort of person who could well have connived to do his own “original” version aiming to impress with his techniques and perhaps even to poke fun at the academy and the art of his age - much as some artists do so today. There is clear indication by commentaries of the period that he was such a person. He died at the age of 65 and Goodall outlived him by 6 years at the advanced age of 82 when his life was in rack and ruin and much his work had been auctioned off to pay his debts. It is possible that his brother , who organized the effort, could have put these signed “originals” on the market unaware of the implications.
All of the large number of biblical works which Goodall had painted during his years in Egypt, were sold within a short period after his return from Egypt by man called Gambert who was a well know dealer of the time. He saw to it that the institutions, apart from the usual collectors, took them off him. Goodall went through very difficult times later in life and his brother Edward all sold off many of his works at auction. It could be that the painting that fired Calderon´s imagination was bought then. It can also be assumed that if Calderon did buy the work he would have done it with Goodall´s approval having thought it was the only copy in existence . Whatever, since there are no recorded comments by Calderon himself on the issue it seems to suggest that the explanation lies in that understanding.
Whereas it would seem strange that a talented painter should hang a copy of a painting whilst he and the original artist were alive, It is unfair that the scattered works of another equally talented artist should be relegated to the status of inferior copies whilst mysteriously displaying his challenged monogram . It might make commercial sense, but artistically, it is nonsense to maintain myths where there is no need for them. Both interpretations are “originals” and vary in much except for composition and it is this that may well have got the two artists to shake hands on the deal. However, going back to the "Goodall" paintings and the Calderon at the Walker Gallery, it can be said that only one version in one place could smell of “fraudulently added signatory”, but two or more equally ,monogrammed in different places and with unrelated owners, can only mean large scale forgeries which later found their ways to different places.In my estimation - highly unlikely. Within a short time, merely by curious reference and later scandalous comments on the subject matter, it would have all come out in the open.
If such a forgery was possible it would have been done by someone who wanted Goodall for some reason, to be the painter and after the death of both artists. This in itself makes little sense with the so called original publically displayed in a National exhibition hall.At least one of these monogrammed "copies" goes back to around the period when Calderon painted. The mystery therefore thickens. Why would the forger have done this instead of turning them into second rate copies when he could have left them unsigned and to their fate as good works of art? Notwithstanding and bearing all the issues of composition, lack of signatory in the Calderon, authentic looking monograms on the “Goodalls”, ambiguity and controversy in subject descriptions(to list but a few oddities), the results would suggest that it was a Goodall painting that Calderon copied and misunderstood. But why he did this or why the other accepted the situation is still to be worked out. My theory is that Calderon´s arrogance and self esteem drove him to think he could paint an identical scene with a finish and mastery well beyond that of Goodall himself. Jealousy at the popularity and wealth of the latter may have also been part of the motive. His nude St. Bridget also run along those lines with the Church and priesthood lampooned in this instance.
Since this article was written a number of almost identical paintings of different sizes with the Goodhall monogram continue to point in the direction of original works or studio copies by Goodhall. It would seem unlikley that various copyists would all decide to call it Goodall if the author happened to be someone else and publically viewed in the Royal Academy. It is now even more likely that Calderon saw it as an excellent example of what he would transform into a more dramatic picture of greater size much as we would crop an existing photograph to increase subject impact. The only thing he did not realize was that the painting had nothing to do with Ruth and Naomi but Boaz and Ruth as Oprah and Oprah as Ruth - a test of love which could have cost her the marriage. Boaz is affronted by the loose exhibition of false sentiment. -------------------------------------------------
Michael Mifsud started his writing career at the age of 16 in the House of Commons lobbies. He ventured into Institional PR and later into publishing with the first UK trade journal for drivers. The chauffeuring academy and temporary agency hit the market dramatically filling a much appreciated need in the city centre traffic problems. He was the youngest full member of the Commonwealth Press Union and travelled far and wide with the British Royals as part of the press entourage, meeting the leaders of the day. Wealth, disasters and renewed wealth marked an innovative life and books stand in queue for when time allows. His first pubication was Al Andalus - a trail of discoveries about the last so called last Anarchists of Europe - the irrepressible and endearing Andalucians.
Related Articles -
ruth, naomi, oprah, boaz, calderon, hermogenes calderon, lesbianism, 19th. century art, ,