A forgotten artist and the city’s ‘terrible beauty’

Glenn O. Coleman’s career as a celebrated Gotham illustrator and painter was a short one. Born in Ohio in 1887, he grew up in Indiana and arrived in Manhattan in 1905 to attend the New York School of Art, studying under Robert Henri and Everett Shinn.

“Minetta Lane, Night” (not dated)

Coleman earned a name for himself in the 1910s and 1920s city art scene with “personal depictions of simple, struggling humanity,” as the Spellman Gallery put it.

His illustrations (some of which he made into lithographs) and paintings reflected the subject matter of his Ashcan teachers: Bowery bums, election night bonfires, slum kids, cops, criminals, “silk-hatted tourists,” bar stool sitters, and other denizens of Lower Manhattan’s pockets and corners, typically at night.

“Downtown Street,” 1926

In 1910, Henri said this about Coleman, who was exhibiting a series of drawings in New York called “Scenes From the Life of the People” that his hometown Indiana newspaper said had a “Hogarthian spirit”:

“This work of Coleman’s is no confection of art junk….It is the record of a certain life drama going on about us here in New York—one side, very grim—a side shunned by many, but one he has looked upon frankly with open eyes and has understood as the thinker with human sympathy understands.”

“Election Night Bonfire,” (not dated)

Coleman explained in 1910 that he never wants for material, and his art is inspired by his own personal vision of beauty. “Sometimes it is a mad beauty, sometimes a powerful and terrible beauty, sometimes a happy and refreshing beauty. I do not think one thing is more beautiful than another, that is, when I see each thing in its own place.”

A contributor to the socialist journal The Masses and part the groundbreaking Armory Show in 1913, Coleman exhibited widely. But he never made big money off his art. “He gained first-hand acquaintance with the experience of the urban poor: often penniless, he frequently was forced to forgo painting in order to work menial jobs to support himself,” according to Fine Art Limited.

“Coenties Slip,” 1928

Poverty wasn’t Coleman’s only roadblock; his social realist art soon went out of fashion in favor of more abstract styles, which he at one point adapted to his work.

“In the mid-1920s, Coleman’s focus as a painter shifted away from the social environment of the city toward a preoccupation with such formal concerns as the geometry of its massive new architecture,” wrote Fine Arts Limited. “Just as his paintings assumed a more modernist style, however, he returned to his earliest sketches of the city as a basis for a series of more conventionally realistic lithographs that celebrate street life and the city’s ordinary inhabitants.”

“The Bowery,” 1928

At some point in the 1920s, he relocated to Long Beach on Long Island, continuing to paint “the grim comedy of a relentless city,” as one newspaper put it. His work won prizes and was acquired by museums like the Brooklyn Museum and the Whitney.

“One Mile House,” 1928

Though he was well-known in his era, his death in 1932 at age 45 didn’t make it into many newspapers. Today, this artist who stayed true to his own muse and vision, who described New York as a city that “comes to me with a mysterious and powerfully absorbing attraction,” has mostly been forgotten.

In a 1910 magazine article, Coleman said: “My pictures may not be exactly like New York life really is—photographically speaking. Who really knows how New York life really is? I have my vision of it, my thoughts, my ideas of it….So these masks of men and women—these disguises of men and women, these curious shapes and forms, these shadows and masses of buildings are images always on my mind and out of these images my pictures are made because they are wonderfully absorbing to me, and because they have this terrible energy of New York life.”

“MacDougal Alley, 1928”

[First and second images: The Whitney Museum of Art; third image: TK; fourth image: TK; fifth image: Phillips Gallery; seventh image: The Whitney Museum of Art]

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18 Responses to “A forgotten artist and the city’s ‘terrible beauty’”

  1. David Richard Says:

    Marvelous! A new one for me, had not known of Coleman. I do like this ‘Ashcan’ school.

  2. Dead of winter, Glenn O. Coleman – This isnt happiness Says:

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  3. Sarita Eisenstark Says:

    To Ephemeral NY,

    These (especially the early) paintings are so wonderful.

    I turned to Wikipedia on for more on Coleman but was dismayed to see so little https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glenn_Coleman_(painter)

    Do you know a Wikipedia editor who could add at the least, the information you already have and present here?

    That would be terrific.



  4. kenny Says:

    That Indiana newspaper couldn’t tell a Hogarth from a donkey’s hairdo; it was probably run by by someone named Quail.

  5. Greg Says:

    Thanks for rescuing this fellow from obscurity.

    Can anyone make out what that tavern sign says? I’m seeing “India Varle Ale” which obviously makes no sense. But neither can I honestly derive “Pale” out of that middle word.

  6. Bill Wolfe Says:

    I always enjoy and appreciate your posts about New York-focused artists. I hadn’t heard of Coleman, so I’m glad for the chance to see his work. He ought to be better known – although I’m guessing he would have a rueful appreciation of his own relative anonymity, given the subject matter of his work.

  7. Jo Says:

    Yes, I’m another art lover & New Yorker who’d never hear of Coleman. His work really is a treasure. I spent my youth around Minetta Lane so that ptg had special resonance for me. Thanks for all you folks who send Ephemeral NY. It counteracts all the spam one is subjected to.

  8. Let it snow – Idreamhere Says:

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  9. reality bites Says:

    I like the images of the characters climbing up the drink glasses. Just like the locals.

  10. velovixen Says:

    I didn’t know about Coleman. Thank you for making me aware of his work.

    You mention that social realist art went out of fashion. The CIA was behind that.

    No, I’m not spouting conspiracy theories. As the “Red Scare” was gathering steam, the CIA and other government entities were looking for any propaganda tool they could find. They thus helped to promote, among other things, what we now call “abstract expressionism” because it was so decidedly non-political–and Stalin all but outlawed it in the Soviet Union.

    Even more ironically, Stalin essentially made the Soviet version of “social realism” the only acceptable form of art–and the CIA had to disabuse Americans of the then-mainstream belief that abstract art was “decadent” or “subversive”: a belief borne largely from the association, early in their careers, of artists like Jackson Pollocks with known or assumed Communist sympathisers!

  11. Carol Ann Siciliano Says:

    Thank you for introducing me to Coleman’s work. I’m especially captivated by the color, blocking and mood of his early work. And his use of light (that bonfire!) delights me. I am a new follower of your blog. I do love New York City. Keep up the good work.

  12. chas1133 Says:

    I wonder if his Litho’s are available somewhere at reasonable prices…or maybe now since published on ENY maybe not…:)

  13. petey Says:

    Thank you again, another NYC painter I hadn’t heard of.

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