Sunday, May 06, 2018
Artist Who Witnessed History
Bernard Perlin was a celebrated artist with works in many museum collections and who witnessed one of the major historical events of the 20th century. In Ridgefield, he may have been better know as the man whose bad fortune led to improved emergency services in a large part of town.
Mr. Perlin was born in 1918 in Richmond, Va., and studied at the New York School of Design, National Academy of Design, and the Art Students League in New York. Only 21 years old, he was commissioned by the U.S. Treasury Department to do a mural for the South Orange, N. J., Post Office in 1939 and, a year later, the U.S. Maritime Commission hired him to paint murals aboard the new SS President Hayes, a naval transport ship.
After designing propaganda posters for the U.S. government during World War II, Mr. Perlin became a war artist-correspondent for Life and Fortune magazines, and was embedded with commando forces in occupied Greece. He later covered the war in the South Pacific and Asia and was aboard the USS Missouri for the official Japanese surrender in September 1945. He stayed on to document the war’s aftermath in Japan and China.
Returning to the United States, Mr. Perlin began a series of “social realist” paintings, recording scenes of life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He also became a successful illustrator for magazines such as Harper’s, Collier’s, and Fortune well into the 1960s.
Mr. Perlin lived and painted in Italy from 1948 until 1954, aided by a Guggenheim Fellowship. There, he began to move away from social realism to instead paint, in his words, “beautiful pictures,” including landscapes, still lifes, and figures.
He returned to New York to document the “cocktail culture” of the late 1950s, but in reaction to the rise of Abstract Expressionism, he left the New York art scene for Ridgefield in 1959. Here, he continued his work as a figurative painter, and his work became increasingly more abstract.
“People always ask me why my paintings are so different they might have been done by several artists,” Mr. Perlin said in a Ridgefield Press interview when he was 94 years old. “Well, I’ve gone through many different phases of life — it’s been full of changes, so why would I stick to one technique? Many artists decide on one style and they stick to it. Their paintings all look alike. It’s boring.”
In July 1962, a fire heavily damaged Mr. Perlin’s Ridgebury home and destroyed many valuable paintings. It was the last straw. Because of the distance to the village firehouse, several recent northern Ridgefield fires had had long response times by the fire department. The Perlin fire prompted the Ridgebury Community Association to petition the town and actively campaign for a Ridgebury firehouse. Six years later, the new station opened.
Bernard Perlin’s art is in the collections of many museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Ashmolean Museum; Detroit Institute of Arts; de Young Museum in San Francisco; Museum of Modern Art; National Academy Museum; National Portrait Gallery; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Princeton University Art Museum; Smithsonian American Art Museum; Tate Modern in London; and the Whitney Museum of American Art. His work has hung in many private collections including those of Mrs. Vincent Astor, Mr. and Mrs. John Jay Whitney, Mr. and Mrs Leonard Bernstein, Harry Hirshhorn, and Lincoln Kirstein.
He continued to paint until just before his death in 2014 at the age of 95.
“Every painting is like a book,” he told the Press interviewer. “You write a book about something. And every book is about something different, and has something a different to say. That’s what painting is like.”
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