In honor of Saint Damien’s canonization, the Department of European and American Art has hung the Academy’s portrait of Joseph Damien de Veuster—Saint Damien since last Saturday—in the Holt Gallery.Here’s the scoop on the painting, from a 2008 article by former Academy Curator of European and American Art Michael Rooks:
The drawing is by British Aesthetic Movement artist Edward Clifford, who traveled to Hawai’i in December 1888—just four months before Father Damien’s death—to visit the sick priest. During this time, the UK feared leprosy might reach the island nation, so Clifford first went to India and Kashmir as part of the Anglican Church Army to learn about Hansen’s disease and to study methods of controlling it. Then he went to Molokai to test Gurjun oil, a treatment he learned in India.
Clifford and Damien became friends. The Englishman brought the Belgian gifts such as a magic lantern with slides illustrating biblical scenes and a watercolor drawing depicting “The Vision of St. Francis” by Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones. In return, Clifford asked Damien to sit for a portrait.
From Molokai Clifford went to Honolulu, where he wrote a memoir about his two weeks in Kalaupapa and made several drawings. One of them was a portrait—Clifford sketched Damien as he imagined the young priest at the age of 28. It was used at the frontispiece for Clifford’s memoir, which was quite popular, especially within the medical community. The portrait was then reproduced in the September 1900 issue of the Cornhill Booklet along with Robert Louis Stevenson’s article “Father Damien: An Open Letter to Rev. Dr. Hyde.” So for a generation, the portrait was probably the best known image of Father Damien.
The Academy’s portrait of Father Damien is a version of Clifford’s imaginary portrait. The portrait was one of the most intriguing aspects of Clifford’s memoir, so he may have made copies for friends such as Burne-Jones. In any case, there is an underlying sensuality in the handsome, youthful portrait of Damien, with his full lips and deep-set eyes. Clifford was known for his depiction of “heroic male beauty.” The portrait was a gift from the art historian Alicia Craig Faxon.