Isaac Henry Steifel was born in Auburn, Indiana in 1857. His family were of modest, German origins, their surname Steifel (boot), probably indicating that their ancestral trade had been shoe-making. Originally apprenticed to a machinist, by the end of the century he would become Isaac Henry Caliga, a successful society painter whose patrons included financier James B Colgate, Charles William Eliot (President of Harvard University), and Warren F. Kellogg.
Perhaps tiring of his apprenticeship, the young Caliga moved to Boston, where he took up a position in a furniture and goods store. He began to frequent Café Marliave, a popular meeting place for artists and poets such as William Morris Hunt, Marcus Waterman, and John Boyle O’Reilly. It was Waterman who encouraged Caliga to study in Europe, and in 1878 he set sail for Munich, where he joined the Academy of Fine Arts under the celebrated history painter Wilhelm Lindenschmit the Younger.
Having perfected his craft, Caliga returned to the US in 1883. He met with almost instant critical acclaim in New York, where the newly-founded American Art Association purchased his work. Exhibitions followed in both New York and Boston, including a joint show with his mentor Marcus Waterman at Williams & Everett in 1887, and by 1888 he had become sufficiently famous to be included in Frank T. Robinson’s Living New England Artists. By this point he had become known by the surname Caliga, the Latin translation of Stiefel. A congenial and charismatic figure, his home and garden at 130 Federal Street, Salem, became a centre of local artistic life, with fellow artists joining him for tennis in the summer and skating in the winter.
In 1893 Caliga married Phoebe Johnston Woodman. Thirteen years his junior, Phoebe came from a wealthy New England family. She had been a muse to her cousin, the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, and would become a model for Caliga. Their whirlwind romance made the society pages of the papers, capturing the imagination of the press. The marriage provided the artist with greater financial security, as the couple moved to 142 Federal Street, which was owned by Phoebe’s aunt. Perhaps it also gave him greater access to the upper echelons of local society, whose members continued to feature in his portraiture, such as Mrs. William Kesson Vanderbilt. Sadly, however, their union was not to last, and the couple divorced in 1913, citing his ‘artistic temperament’ as the cause of their separation. The press’s fascination with the couple continued, and their story was reported as far afield as El Paso and Washington.
Following his divorce Caliga moved to Provincetown, Cape Cod, where he perhaps found a more suitable match in fellow artist Elizabeth Howland, whom he married in 1924. In Provincetown he once again threw himself into the local community, becoming a prominent member of the artistic society known as the Beachcombers’, and something of a father figure to younger artists in the emerging Provincetown Art Colony. He continued to live and work in Provincetown until his death there in 1944.