Oil on canvas, approximately 44 x 60 inches. Manchester City Art Galleries, Manchester, England.
This large, sombre painting illustrates Act II, Scene ii, of Julius Caesar when Caesar's wife Calphurnia emplores him to take the comet they see as a portent and to stay away from the Senate on the Ides of March, the fifteenth day of the month. On this night when neither "heaven nor earth hath peace" both his wife and the "augurers" urge him to stay home. Calphurnia observes that "When beggars die there are no comets seen; / The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes." But the fatalistic Caesar replies,
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
Poynter was a student of classical architecture and the interior of the palace with its structural detail commands our attention more than the two figures of Caesar and Calphurnia. The illumination in the painting is also noteworthy; the sky glows with the passing comet, but the interior is lit with a single lamp that reflects from the walls and floor, casting eerie shadows and light on the scene.
John Christian quotes the critic of the Art Journal who says the canvas, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1883, is "conceived in the severest mood" and reveals Poynter's "true love of classical art." F. G. Stephens, the critic for the Athenaeum, adds that the "actions of the figures tell the story well, but of course the pathos of the picture is due to the strangeness of the light, reversed from the natural order, and shining from below on the polished shafts, sculptured panels, and gilded mouldings, among which all sorts of weird shadows seem to lurk as if they were about assume even more monstrous and alarming shapes. This is one of the most impressive of Mr. Poynter's creations. He has never dealt more successfully with the magnificence of architecture. . ." (Christian 190).