Spotlight on the Collection: June 2016

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Charles Caryl Coleman's painting of Mount Vesuvius.
Charles Caryl Coleman, American (1840-1928), 1901, Oil on panel, 18 3/4 × 12 3/16 inches, Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art; Museum purchase with funds provided by the Friends of American Art, 2010.113

On an October evening in 1901, the American painter Charles Caryl Coleman painted this view of Mount Vesuvius from the window of his studio on the Italian island of Capri. Coleman was closely associated with Aestheticism, an artistic movement that emphasized beauty over all other principles. Many of the artists associated with this movement were heavily influenced by Japanese art, which they admired for its simple designs and natural motifs. Coleman’s composition—with its vast foreground and the volcanic peak punctuating the background—was heavily influenced by the work of the master Japanese printmaker Hiroshige Utagawa (1797-1858), particularly his series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. As The New York Times art critic Charles De Kay noted in 1899, “In Mr. Coleman’s life on Capri the volcano seems to assume the importance and place which the peak of Fusiyama [Mount Fuji] occupies in the minds of the Japanese who live within its ban.”

Born and raised in Buffalo, New York, Coleman studied in Paris, but ultimately made his permanent residence on Capri in a 17th-century convent he named Villa Narciso, after Narcissus, the Greek mythological figure who was smitten with the beauty of his own reflection. From his studio, Coleman had a direct view of Mount Vesuvius, which he painted repeatedly, in various states of eruption, for nearly 60 years, referring to some of them as “Songs of Vesuvius.” Of these pictures, De Kay wrote, “Vesuvius dominates the Bay of Naples, though for the most part its domination is of a gentle sort…there are few places on the whole island where a short walk will not bring one in sight of Vesuvius. No wonder the artist felt constrained to sing these charming little songs of Vesuvius in his own way, through his own medium, with oils or pastels.”

The Museum’s Friends of American Art acquired Coleman’s painting at its annual dinner in 2010. It was a welcome addition to a growing number of works in the collection created by American artists who journeyed to Italy for inspiration, including Thomas Cole’s View of Mount Aetna (1842), Robert Seldon Duncanson’s A Dream of Italy (1865), and Albert Bierstadt’s Mount Vesuvius at Midnight (1869). It currently hangs in the Museum’s Styslinger Gallery of American Art.