Born in Buffalo in 1840, Coleman first studied art there with William H. Beard, and then in Paris, between 1860 and 1862. He returned to the United States to serve with the Union Army in the Civil War. Wounded, he retired from service in 1863. He left again for Europe in 1866, joining his friend, the painter Elihu Vedder, in France before settling in Rome. In 1886 he moved permanently to Capri, where he maintained a home and studio which he called the Villa Narcissus.
During the course of the late 1870s through the late 1880s, Coleman painted a series of decorative panels whose motif of flowering fruit-tree branches and complex linear design clearly reflect an awareness of Oriental art. This elaboration of surface is carried through as well in the hand-carved frames of Coleman's own design. In turn, some of Colemans decorative panels are known to have originally been set in cabinets or other pieces of furniture. Colemans display of virtuosity was very much part of the aesthetic shared by expatriate artists and writers of the late 19th century. His panels regularly feature Near Eastern embroideries, Moorish vases, Japanese fans or a combination of these elements.
"Still Life with Plum Blossoms in an Oriental Vase" dates from 1887, and features an eclectic array of decorative items arranged in a tight composition. The delicate branches with their vibrant flowers lunge dramatically upwards from the mouth of an elaborately patterned blue and white Moorish vase, which appears in other pictures by the artist. The still life is set off by the Oriental textiles that hang in the background and cover the supporting surface. As an avid collector of decorative arts, Coleman was inspired by the various possibilities afforded him by the wonderful objects he collected. Among the works in Coleman's decorative series is "Apple Blossoms" (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), which bears a frame almost identical to that accompanying "Still Life with Plum Blossoms in an Oriental Vase". The decorative carving is in low relief, with a scrolling foliate pattern which echoes the patterns featured in the painting.