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From the Outside In: Emanuel Romano, "Portrait of Carson McCullers," ca. 1949

By Edgar Walters

Emanuel Romano (Italian-American, 1897–1984). Portrait of Carson McCullers, ca. 1949. Oil on masonite. Art Collection, Harry Ransom Center.
Emanuel Romano (Italian-American, 1897–1984). Portrait of Carson McCullers, ca. 1949. Oil on masonite. Art Collection, Harry Ransom Center.

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows

This portrait of the American writer Carson McCullers (1917–1967), painted by her friend Emanuel Romano (1897–1984), is one of a series of author portraits painted by Romano in the Harry Ransom Center collections, including pictures of Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and T. S. Eliot, among many others.

Emanuel Glicenstein was born in Italy into a family of eminent sculptors and painters. He immigrated to the United States, settling in New York City, where he adopted the surname “Romano” to distinguish himself from his well-known artist father. Romano achieved prominence in New York as a painter, teacher, and lecturer. His portraits are rendered in an Expressionist style, employing strong colors and exaggerated lines to express emotions. Throughout his work, he was more interested in capturing emotive content than in creating solely realistic portrayals of his subjects.

When Romano was introduced to Carson McCullers in 1948 by mutual friend David McDowell, he must have sensed immediately an ideal subject for his Expressionist style. McCullers was a fragile, vulnerable woman with large, shining eyes. She had attempted suicide in March of that year, but over the summer she had rebounded to work on a theatrical adaptation of her novel The Member of the Wedding (a typescript of which can be seen in the north atrium window of the Ransom Center) and was now attending rehearsals. Romano discussed his first encounter with McCullers with her biographer Virginia Spencer Carr in The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers:

One morning McDowell came with a lady to my studio. She looked pale in her countenance; she had a body impairment and moved with great effort. She told me she had hemiplegia. Half of her body was paralyzed, but she tried courageously to hide her handicapped limbs. I was immediately attracted by the sensitivity of her personality and asked her to pose for a portrait, to which she immediately agreed. With pride she showed me the shirt she wore and the gray-green slacks—her man’s shirt, a dark blue plaid with emerald green stripes, had been a present from Tennessee Williams, from Milano. From time to time I would ask if she wanted to rest, but she would say, “No, I can sit some more.” But she wanted to have a cup of very hot coffee and a smoke. She smoked continuously… Usually she came in the morning and went to rehearsals of The Member of the Wedding in the afternoon.

After the opening of the play, which Romano attended, he created another oil painting as well as a series of drawings of McCullers.

This portrait is but one example of the Ransom Center’s collection of thousands of works of visual art, ranging from the fifteenth through the twentieth centuries. These include not only portraits of writers by Romano and other artists but also paintings and drawings created by a number of writers themselves, including the poet E. E. Cummings, novelists D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, and playwrights George Bernard Shaw and Tennessee Williams.

Ransom Center volunteer Katherine McGhee wrote this post.

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