Charles Caryl Coleman

Transnational American Artist

by Adrienne Baxter Bell

It would have been easier for me to make myself at home anywhere on earth, I think, than here in America. I miss Europe and I yearn for Greece. And I am always dreaming of Tibet…. I feel least of all like an American, though I am probably more an American than anything else.

—Henry Miller1

Charles Caryl Coleman in his Capri villa, c. 1920

In many ways, Henry Miller’s ambivalence toward the life of the expatriate suits the story of Charles Caryl Coleman (1840–1928). Born in Buffalo, New York, Coleman visited Italy in 1866; unlike the majority of his American artist colleagues, he stayed. For the next sixty years, he would return to America only occasionally and briefly, usually to attend the opening of one of his exhibitions or to reconnect with friends. For the balance of his life, Coleman immersed himself in the international array of cultural networks that circulated through Europe during the late nineteenth century. His paintings—especially the decorative panels for which he is now best known—bear witness to his near obsession with objects then viewed as exotic: Japanese hanging scrolls and fans, Chinese pottery and porcelain, Venetian glass and majolica vases, and Islamic textiles. This immersive process deepened when, in the 1880s, he moved to Capri. Inspired by the island’s still-palpable links to its ancient Roman past, he re-envisioned its ancient culture in his art and even through his own countenance.

American expatriate artists have often been seen as witnesses to the Other—as artists who traveled abroad for inspiration from unfamiliar histor­ical sites and traditions and then returned to the safety of home, where they manifested that inspiration in their art. Coleman, by contrast, engaged in a “conversation of cultures,” a vast, interconnected transmission of ideas and values between East and West, and among historical epochs.2 Living in Italy, where he was liberated from the strictures of American values, he could be party to multiple cultural currents; more important, he felt sufficiently free to invent new pictorial strategies—even to reinvent himself. As Coleman’s transnationalism takes the study of American art beyond national borders, it illuminates the complex network of intercultural forces that helped to define the modern experience.

Coleman, Vedder and the Macchiaioli

Coleman’s first exposure to European art may have come after William Holbrook Beard, one of his teachers in Buffalo, returned from his 1856 trip to Italy, Switzerland and Germany. The student quickly followed in his mentor’s footsteps; within a year, Coleman was studying with Thomas Couture in Paris.3 There, Coleman sought the technically sound yet modern and avant-garde training that Couture provided. As Couture always used male and female models, his studio exercises may have provided Coleman with the confidence to execute his strikingly intense portrait of the English poet Walter Savage Landor (1860). While in Paris, Coleman had the good fortune of meeting Elihu Vedder, who would become a life-long friend.4 In 1860, he joined Vedder in Florence, where he stayed for two years. Coleman returned to America to fight in the Civil War, during which he was wounded and honorably discharged.5From 1863 to 1866, he maintained a studio in New York and began to show his work regularly at the Boston Athenaeum, the Brooklyn Art Academy and the National Academy of Design. If Grapes (1865), a rare still life from this period, represents the high quality of Coleman’s early work, it is not surprising that he was elected Associate at the National Academy of Design in 1865.6 Grapes also foreshadows the artist’s subsequent devotion to still-life painting, which he consummated in his renowned decorative panels. With this shift, Coleman supplanted characteristically American realism with the nearly visionary opu­lence of the Aesthetic Movement.

Coleman in the Campagna

Newly awarded full membership in the National Academy of Design in 1865, Vedder decided to test his abilities in Europe; Coleman joined him one year later. After sketching with Vedder in Brittany, Coleman settled in Rome in the fall of 1866.7 There, he was drawn to the lives of ordinary people, to politics and to art history. Roman Street Scene (1872) exemplifies these three interests. In this work, clerical and secular Romans gather along a long stone wall; some can be identified as ciociari, or residents of central Italy, for their folk costumes and strapped footwear (ciocie). The painting’s pronounced horizontality evokes the work of the Macchiaioli, which Coleman saw through his friendship with Vedder. Vedder and Nino Costa, the leader of the group, were themselves close friends. Surely, Coleman also studied such Renaissance frescoes as Masaccio and Filippino Lippi’s Raising of the Son of Theophilus and St. Peter Enthroned, in the Brancacci Chapel, which he could have seen during visits to the city in 1860–62 and 1871. In this way, Coleman signaled his allegiance both to con­temporary Italian aesthetics and to Italy’s distinguished artistic heritage.

Charles Caryl Coleman, <i>The Bronze Horses of San Marco,</i>1876<br/>PRIVATE COLLECTIONColeman featured few subjects traditionally painted by American expa­triates (Lake Nemi, the Colosseum). When he painted a famous subject—The Bronze Horses of San Marco, from 1876 (cover), for example—he viewed them from an oblique angle and focused nearly as much on the cathedral’s weather-beaten, narrow, sloping balcony. Instead, quotidian scenes piqued his imag­ination; he did one series of drawings, for example, on nuns praying inside San Marco, another on Venetian sailboats. While this perspective may have jeopardized sales of his work to tourists, it also provides insight into his ethos. He saw Italy not as a memorial of ancient ruins but as a vibrant culture, rich with living traditions.

Coleman’s Decorative Panels and the Transnational Aesthetic Movement

To Mr. Coleman a blossoming branch, in a rich vase against a background of tender-toned drapery, has a thousand charms which the ordinary spec­tator would never discover.

 —Boston Daily Advertiser8

From the late 1870s to the late 1880s, Coleman painted at least sixteen extraordinary decorative panels. These delicate still lifes of flowering branches in elaborate vases, juxtaposed with intricate combinations of patterned fabrics, both embodied and helped to shape the ideals of the transnational Aesthetic Movement. Ultimately, though, they resist nearly all comparisons and remain some of the most inventive and engaging artworks of the late nineteenth century.

In these sharply vertical or horizontal paintings (some of which measure more six and one-half feet high or long), apple, <i>Still Life with Azaleas and Apple Blossoms</i>, 1879<br>COURTESY DE YOUNG MUSEUM SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIAquince, cherry, plum or almond blossoms spill from brightly colored majolica vases or jardinières. In Still Life with Azaleas and Apple Blossoms (1879), the branches of azaleas are so magnifi­cently attenuated as to defy gravity. In life, such spindly forms could not sustain their verticality unassisted. Here, by contrast, they wend their way to the apex in a simulacrum of their growth pattern, periodically bursting into dramatic white blossoms. As with many Aesthetic Movement artists, Coleman sacrificed the exigencies of naturalism for the pleasures of artifice. Meticulously and gingerly, and at key locations, he intersected branch with branch, and blossom with branch, and blossom over blossom, to balance dense passages—passages of visual weight—with lighter ones. To counterbalance the painting’s vertical­ity, he created three focal points on its horizontal axis. The first—the dense, deep red of the Japanese repoussé bronze jardinière—anchors the structure. The triangular cluster of flowers just north of the painting’s midpoint rep­resents the second. The last appears in the lavish clusters of azaleas at the apex. These three intermissions, on the branches’ vertical escalade, generate a nearly Chinese dichotomous structure of contrary, interconnected and com­plementary forces in the natural world—dark and light, density and fragility, substance and transmutation. Together, they generate a dynamic aesthetic system in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

On the narrow ledge, sprigs of pink apple blossoms spill from a blue-and-white pear-shaped bottle vase. The vase plays both historical and auto­biographical roles. Fully developed in China during the fourteenth century, blue-and-white pottery production reached its apex during the reign of the Kangxi emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1661–1772). Its popularity flourished in Europe and America when “Chinamania” struck London in the 1870s and was famously incarnated in James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room (1876–77). The leaping deer motif, seen on the front of the vase, is an established Chinese symbol of strength, agility and longevity; it counterbalances the azalea, which symbolizes the ephemeral qualities of temperance, fragility, gratitude and passion.9The vase and the jardinière also signal Coleman’s identity as a voracious collector and art dealer. Indeed, photographs and visitors’ accounts of his studio confirm that he displayed many of the objects featured in his decorative panels.

Coleman extended allusions to East Asian symbolism in the ledge’s pat­terned cream-colored cloth, which evokes the characteristic mounting (heri) of a Japanese hanging scroll. Each irregularly placed roundel features three interlocking circles in a larger circle; as a group, they call to mind (but do not officially reproduce) Coleman’s characteristic interlocked, triple-C mono­gram. The inscription “Roma” and the date “1879,” in the lower-right roundel, together stand in for the signature. This form of roundel and the fragments of larger, paler floral roundels that overlap on the slightly darker, mushroom-col­ored backdrop recall Japanese mon: decorative emblems, akin to coats of arms or crests, often displayed separately or printed onto formal attire. Somewhat surprisingly, a fragment of a darker roundel appears in the upper-left corner of the painting. In this asymmetrical state and position, it engages the viewer’s curiosity while it echoes the fragile nature of the floral subject matter and recalls the asymmetry favored in East Asian aesthetics. Coleman rehearses the theme of circularity in concave rosettes that mark each of the four corners of the painting’s Cassetta frame, which he also designed. By using these forms, Coleman unifies the work and reveals the entire composition—painting and frame—as an arena for aesthetic engagement.

Life and Art on the Island of Capri

In the mid-1880s, Coleman and Vedder moved permanently to Capri. Colonized first by Greeks and then by Romans, Capri remains deeply inscribed by history. For example, ruins of two of Emperor Tiberius’ twelve villas remain visible at its northern borders. Capri—the island, its history and its residents—soon became Coleman’s greatest source of inspiration. The set­ting of Women in the Wheat Fields, Anacapri (1887) is the western section of the island, specifically, a fertile area known as Catena. From this perspective, we look northwest across the Gulf of Naples to Ischia. The distinctive cupola and lantern at the center belong to the Church of Santa Sofia (1596–1777), which is located in the heart of Anacapri on Via Boffe.10

The woman seen in profile at the left—with a distinctly straight nose, full lips and firm chin—is almost certainly Rosina (Rosa, Rose) Ferraro (1862–1934), an Anacaprese who modeled for a number of artists on Capri, including John Singer Sargent, and whose sister-in-law was one of Coleman’s housekeep­ers. During his visit to Capri in the late summer of 1878, Sargent made several studies and paintings featuring Ferraro, including A Capriote (1878), in which she poses languidly against a gnarled tree, and Capri Girl on a Rooftop (1878), in which she dances on the roof of a Capri villa. In both works, Ferraro wears a white peasant blouse, laced navy bodice, apron-like skirt and gold hoop ear­rings. She wears nearly the same clothing in Coleman’s painting, though here she sports a yellow kerchief and a necklace with a gold cross pendant. She also wears simple gold bands on the fourth fingers of each hand, although, at this point in her life, Ferraro seems to have been neither engaged nor married.11

<i>Women in the Wheat Fields, Anacapri,</i> 1887<br/>PRIVATE COLLECTION

In Coleman’s painting, Ferraro carries a double-handle amphora, precisely the type of object that the artist actively collected. Indeed, he filled his Capri home—Villa Narcissus—with fragments of Roman ruins found on the island and with antiques from the mainland, many of which he attempted to sell to American art dealers. Photographs of the villa taken at the time of Charles de Kay’s visit in 1902 reveal a macaronic blend of Roman, Pompeiian, medieval, Renaissance, Moorish and vaguely Eastern objects. According to another source, there were “statues, lecterns, missals, manuscripts...bas-reliefs and inscriptions…mutilated statues, broken columns, open sarcophagi and empty funerary urns.”12 Coleman even re-shaped a number of the villa’s door jambs into arches, designed several elaborate wrought-iron doors, each in a different pattern, and replaced several windows with elegant designs in stained glass. In short, Coleman’s transnationalism entailed surrounding himself with objects that served both the physical needs of his life and the metaphysical needs of his paintings.

The Return from the Crucifixion


<i>The Return from the Crucifixion</i>, 1915<br/>THE SPEED ART MUSEUM, LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY

The expressivity of Coleman’s transnationalism is nowhere more apparent than in an extraordinary, indeed magisterial painting of 1915—a painting almost entirely overlooked in American art history. In his choice of theme for The Return from the Crucifixion (1915), Coleman was inspired by Vedder’s The Ninth Hour: Return from Calvary (1863–65). Set against America’s Protestant infrastructure, these two paintings might not have been warmly received at home. While America’s natural bounty was widely viewed as evi­dence of God’s grace, and while American artists, art critics and patrons eagerly embraced the idea of the spiritualized landscape, they bristled at the iconography of the Passion. Challenging the status quo, Thomas Eakins shocked the public in 1882 when he first exhibited his Crucifixion (1880); never before had realism so effectively treated an explicitly Catholic scene. Moreover, until fairly recently, his painting was viewed primarily as an anatomical study.13

In Italy’s Catholic environment, however, Vedder’s and Coleman’s paint­ings found a welcome audience. In Vedder’s version, the crowd reacts quite theatrically, with outstretched arms and prayerful hand positions, to Christ’s final words on the cross. Coleman, by contrast, settled on the crowd’s complex reactions after the event. Here and in dozens of preparatory studies, he focused on representing the distinct clothing and expressions of the individuals pres­ent, carefully articulating each personality among the witnesses. Capri played its part in this process. For example, the man in the left foreground wearing the green turban is Spadaro, a Corsican fisherman who became a local celebrity by modeling for artists on Capri.14That Coleman included his own portrait in the scene, as the man in red with the forked beard, signals the depth of his commitment to the painting. 15

The Return from the Crucifixion is all the more extraordinary for its articu­lation of responses to this momentous event in Christian history. While some figures exhibit confusion, nearly all turn their back on Calvary, seen dimly—thought preternaturally illuminated—in the distance. Three figures in the left middle ground seem to chat amiably, as though catching up on personal affairs. In the midst of the crowd, however, one person stands out. This is the figure swathed in white robes, resting on a rocky ledge at the far left. Hunched over with head buried in cloth, heavy in mass and heart, she sees no one and con­nects with no other gaze.16 Indeed, Coleman represented the same figure alone in a painting simply entitled Dolore (Sorrow) (1913).

A clue to the figure’s meaning resides in her location. While her kindred clothing links her to the witnesses of the Crucifixion, her rounded form visually aligns with winding road to Calvary. Physically isolated from the others and even metaphysically isolated in time, she alone registers cognizance of what she has just seen. With this figure, Coleman seems to say, we gain insight into human beings, a group often insensitive to but, occasionally, fully con­scious of the nature of suffering. Not surprisingly, Coleman viewed The Return from the Crucifixion as “the greatest work of his long life.”17Surprisingly, the painting—and, indeed, nearly all of Coleman’s work—has since escaped the attention of scholars and the public. Coleman’s last solo exhibition was held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1929, one year after his death.18 The oversight has been unwarranted. In fact, Coleman’s more than 350 paintings, watercolors, drawings and pastels together comprise a prodigious and complex body of work. To revisit him today is to see an artist who enriches our understanding of Gilded Age and early twentieth-century American art. While he remained ever hopeful of showing and selling his work in America, Coleman ultimately rejected America as an environment inhospitable to his wide-ranging and pro­tean interests. Indeed, for Coleman, Italy was not the glorious relic celebrated by many of his American contemporaries; instead, it was a deeply stratified environment in which august traditions felt as vital as daily affairs. Especially alert to the legion of cultural dynamics that ultimately defined European art during his lifetime—to the influx of art and ideas from China, Japan, India and the Middle East—and to the tenacious presence in Italy of antiquity, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Coleman not only inhabited but also con­tributed to Italy’s global art community. From this multifaceted perspective, he built his own transnational vision for the modern world.

©Adrienne Baxter Bell, 2014


1. Henry Miller, The Books in My Life (New York: New Directions, 1952), p. 253.

2. For more on transnational artists, including my chapter on Coleman’s decorative panels as embodiments of transnationalism, see Cheryll L. May and Marian Wardle, eds., A Seamless Web: Transatlantic Art in the Nineteenth Century (London: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014).

3. Marchal Landgren, American Pupils of Thomas Couture (Baltimore: University of Maryland Art Gallery, 1970), pp. 26–27.

4. Regina Soria, “Chronology,” in Elihu Vedder, Charles Caryl Coleman: Visions of Italy (New York: Borghi & Co., 1988), p. 52.

5. Coleman volunteered as Second Lieutenant and, on 23 December 1862, was commis­sioned First Lieutenant. See Regina Soria, Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century American Artists in Italy, 1760–1914 (East Brunswick, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, Inc., 1982), p. 91; see also The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography (New York: James T. White & Company, 1931), p. 233.

6. The National Cyclopaedia, p. 233. Coleman never became a full Academician.

7. Soria, Dictionary, p. 91; see also Soria, “Chronology,” p. 53.

8. “The Fine Arts—Two Interesting Exhibitions,” Boston Daily Advertiser (8 March 1880), p. 2.

9. Patricia Bjaaland Welch, Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery (Boston: Tuttle Publishing, 2012), p. 117. On botanical taxonomy, see Alfred Byrd Graf, Hortica (East Rutherford, New Jersey: Roehrs Company, Publishers, 1992). The kinds of flowering fruit tree blossoms that Coleman painted in his decorative panels are all common to the Province of Rome, where he lived and worked.

10. Gaetana Cantone, et al., “La Chiesa di S. Sofia,” Capri: la città e la terra (Naples: Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 1982), pp. 273–75.

11. Rosina Ferraro married the American painter George Randolph Barse, Jr. (1861–1938) in Rome on 24 January 1891. At the end of the year, the couple moved to New York City and later moved permanently to Katonah, New York. Rosina Ferraro Barse marriage certificate and letter, private collection.

12. Edwin Cerio, The Masque of Capri (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1957), p. 113.

13. Elizabeth Milroy, “’Consummatum est…’: A Reassessment of Thomas Eakins’s Crucifixion of 1880,” The Art Bulletin 71:2 (June 1989), pp. 269–84.

14. Letter from Charles Caryl Coleman to Mrs. Hattie Bishop Speed, 22 June 1928 (typed for Coleman by Roy Norton), Charles Caryl Coleman archives, the Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky.

15. Vedder may have modeled for the man behind Coleman in the painting. In Vedder’s version of the theme, Coleman almost certainly served as the model for the figure in the foreground with the forked beard.

16. The gender of this figure is somewhat ambiguous; we see only a sliver of face behind the robes and a rugged left hand. However, the fact that she is not wearing a turban or keffiyeh and that her clothing resembles a simlah, or crudely sewn woolen robe, worn by other women in the scene, lead me to identify her as a woman. The figure also some­what resembles Jane Jackson in Vedder’s Study of Jane Jackson: A Cumaean Sibyl (c. 1863).

17. Letter from Coleman to Mrs. Hattie Bishop Speed, 22 June 1928.

18. “Exhibition of Work of Charles Caryl Coleman,” Brooklyn Museum Quarterly 16 (January 1929), p. 21.

 American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2015, Volume 32, Number 1