Carroll Beckwith

Sarony photograph #19.

—by John Cooper and Erik Ryding—

Sarony photograph #19 must have been a favorite of Wilde’s as it is almost certainly the one he was referring to when, in March 1882, he wrote to his tour promoter, Richard D’Oyly Carte, to suggest that a lithograph of himself would help business. He said: “The photograph of me with head looking over my shoulder would be the best – just the head and fur collar.”

It is not surprising, therefore, that one occasionally sees this photograph signed by Wilde as a gift for friends, and two such examples can be seen in the footnotes.

However, a third example, featured above, is of more interest because it is inscribed: “pour mon ami, Carroll Beckwith” which, even for most Wilde scholars, invites two questions: who was Carroll Beckwith, and why is Wilde’s inscription in French?

James Carroll Beckwith (1852 – 1917)
by Sarony.

During the final months of 1882 as Wilde’s lecture tour of America was winding down, he took up residence in New York City to see out the year—and, of course, to further a campaign of inculcating himself into the lives of notable artists and personalities. One such was James Carroll Beckwith.

When Wilde met him in late 1882, Beckwith was already a respected American painter who had studied in France under Adolphe Yvon and Carolus-Duran, and it was through the latter that Beckwith developed a working relationship with John Singer Sargent.

But in a Wilde sense, apart from a vague recognition of the above cabinet card, no previous connection has been made explicitly between Wilde and Beckwith. He is not listed in Ellmann or Sturgis, nor, indeed, in any previous biography or article in connection with Wilde that we can find.

Fortunately for general historians of the period, Beckwith kept a diary for many years, and these have now been digitized. Beckwith’s diaries are part of the James Carroll Beckwith papers, 1871-circa 1991, bulk 1875-1917 at the Smithsonian Institution’s Archives of American Art.

Also fortunately for Wilde historians, Beckwith’s entries for 1882 contain notes about several of his Oscarly interactions—which is useful as new firsthand accounts of Wilde’s life are difficult to come by.

LINK– Beckwith diaries [allow time to load]

From the diary we learn that Beckwith probably first met Wilde on, or just before, November 25, 1882, when he recorded: “I have done no work. Met Oscar Wilde and was at [S?].” This apparently earliest reference, together with the use of Wilde’s full name, suggests a first encounter—as more often than not Beckwith later referred to him simply as Wilde.

Beckwith’s handwriting in the diaries is occasionally difficult to decipher, and as the text is not yet searchable, the following is a précis of related entries, from which we learn (for the first time I believe) with whom Wilde spent Christmas Day in 1882.

From the Beckwith Diaries

October 24: getting tickets for Mother and Mary to go to Patience tomorrow.

October 30: Poor Mrs Langtry, the theatre burned this afternoon just as she was to come out tonight.

[i.e. the Park Theatre where Langtry was set to appear in Tom Taylor’s An Unequal Match. The production opened a week later at Wallack’s Theatre.]

November 25: Chase & I dined at the Levy’s; and I went to see Mrs Langtry who is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.

[William Merritt Chase (1849 –1916) American painter, impressionist, and teacher.]

November 30 : “I came back here when Oscar Wilde came.”

December 1: Tonight Oscar Wilde, [CB?] & I dined together and then went to the private box for Langtry. She came in at once to see us and it is needless to say I had a rapturous evening in the presence of that beautiful woman. We then went to the Club where I introduced him to some of the members.

December 3: …followed by Oscar Wilde who spent the afternoon until after five o’clock.

December 5 : …and then painted until Birdsall & Wilde and Colt came in.

December 7: After lunch here which was bad I had quite a crowd of people here finishing up with Wilde as usual.

December 8 (AM): …this morning with Wilde and at the Leibes? was delicious?

December 8 (PM): …and after I dressed and dined with Wilde at Martinelli’s.

December 12: Blashfield gave a lunch to Wilde which lasted until 5 o’c.”

[Edwin Howland Blashfield (1848–1936) American painter and muralist, best known for his ceiling murals on the dome of the Library of Congress.]

December 13: I sent a regret to Oscar Wilde’s dinner. It has rained dismally all the day.

December 14: … I took Wilde to [Waring’s?] :

[Possibly Colonel George E. Waring, a New York engineer, with whom Oscar had breakfasted on July 17, 1882 at Newport, RI.]

December 22: Wilde was in at dusk.

December 25: Wilde was here also several others. We all had a jolly xmas dinner at the [Levy’s?] which has but just [?].

From Beckwith’s diary entry for Christmas Day, 1882.

Continuing with Beckwith’s diary we see that, not only did he dine with Wilde on Christmas Day, he was with him on the day after Christmas as well.

December 26: I bade Wilde farewell tonight with sincerest regret. I have taken a warm liking to him.

Beckwith’s farewell note was made on December 26 which was the eve of Wilde’s departure from America after a stay on the continent of almost a full year.

Given Beckwith’s expression of feeling towards Wilde, it appears to have been a touching occasion. It is possible that Wilde gave Beckwith the signed photograph at this time, and, if mementoes were exchanged this may have been when Wilde received in return one of Beckwith’s works: for in the Tite Street sale catalogue at the time of Wilde’s bankruptcy, there is item 118: An oil painting, Study of a Head, by J. Carol [sic] Beckwith, exhibited.

The French connection

As for Wilde’s inscription being in French, this is really no surprise. To begin with, Wilde was quite conversant in the language, and Carroll was reasonably fluent, having lived in France.

But we suspect the conceit of the French inscription was likely a piece of Francophile camaraderie prompted in Wilde because he was planning to go to Paris after his return from America, and before leaving he evidently asked Beckwith for a letter of introduction. This Beckwith duly provided dating it that propitious day: 26 December ’82.

That letter survives. It, too, is in French and is part of the Oscar Wilde collection at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at UCLA College [B397L/U58].

Images courtesy of Jospeh Bristow, Distinguished Professor
UCLA English Department [1]

Beckwith’s letter of introduction is to Chèr Maître (Dear Master) and it is currently notated at the Clark as written to a person unidentified. [1]

However, based on Erik’s studies of Beckwith, Sargent, and the period, we can identify that the letter as almost certainly addressed to Carolus-Duran. Beckwith mentions Duran in his diaries as his painting teacher; Beckwith was also designated at Duran’s élève (student) in a third-party portrait; and Duran himself in correspondence to Beckwith referred to him as “votre vieux maître”. These and other indications appear conclusive and the record at the Clark will be updated accordingly.

Erik has also provided the following transcription and translation of the letter:


58 West 57 Street
New York
26 December ’8[2]

Chèr Maître

Je vous présente mon ami M Oscar Wilde un anglais qui a passé une dixaine* de mois dans notre payes. Il est très sympathique avec l’art que vous nous avez ensignié, et je suis enchanté de pouvoir vous le faire connaitre, comme il est, à Londres, le champion de notre art moderne.

Votre Elève dévoué
Carroll Beckwith


Dear Master

I present to you my friend Mr. Oscar Wilde, an Englishman who spent about ten months in our country. He is very favorably disposed to the [kind of] art that you have taught us, and I am delighted to be able to make him known to you since, in London, he is the champion of our modern art.

Your devoted pupil,
Carroll Beckwith

*Beckwith possibly intended “une douzaine,” twelve months. He would have known that Wilde had been in the US for a year at that point.

© John Cooper, Erik Ryding, 2022.

Erik Ryding is a fellow Wildean having taught Wilde as an English professor at Barnard College of Columbia University, and is currently engaged in producing a video about Oscar Wilde’s time in New York City. He is also active musically as a classical lutenist; has also produced a wonderful video about John Singer Sargent’s passion for music and has authored a biography of the German conductor Bruno Walter.


[1] Carroll Beckwith, Letter to unknown person, 1882 December 26, ms Wilde Box 3/Folder 21, UCLA William Andrews Clark Memorial Library. Reproduced with thanks to Rebecca Fenning Marschall, Manuscripts & Archives Librarian, William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA

Alternative Sarony Photographs 19

Two more signed examples photograph 19 which, despite some retouching and shading to the hair and collar, are essentially the same photograph.

7 thoughts on “Carroll Beckwith

  1. Cracking stuff, John and Erik. I wondered if the illegible word beginning with S in the entry for Nov 25 might be “Standard”, because the review of Iolanthe in the NY Mirror mentions that Wilde was in attendance. But I’ve just looked at that page of the diary and it doesn’t really look like Standard. Maybe they met earlier in the day.

    Anyway, I have already dashed to update my blog post on the Tite Street artworks to cite you for suggesting that Wilde acquired the Beckwith painting in NY in 1882. *Thumbs up*

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Once again, this is a fascinating first-hand account of Wilde’s time in New York City, and I really appreciate the impulse to dig in the archives to identify correspondents and to find out how Wilde’s glamorous life on the public stage was actually orchestrated behind the scene and can, in fact, be reconstructed from original documents. Recounting such encounters in a factual way may perhaps make us lose some of the many amusing anecdotes one is so used to with reference to Wilde, but latter-day readers of 19th-century literature will also feel informed for the first time about what really happened and how, for example, Wilde was introduced to the Paris scene by means of a letter written on his behalf in French but composed in New York City.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I appreciated your article on Wilde’s time together with James Carroll Beckwith. And of course Eric, for his contributions.


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