Ridgefield notables: Bernard Perlin, history and a fire
Bernard Perlin, whose paintings are in many museum collections, witnessed one of the major historical events of the 20th Century. In Ridgefield, his bad fortune led to improved emergency services.
Born in 1918 in Richmond, Va., Perlin studied at the New York School of Design, National Academy of Design, and the Art Students League in New York. Only 21, he was commissioned by the Treasury Department in 1939 to do a mural for a post office. A year later, the U.S. Maritime Commission had him paint murals aboard the new SS President Hayes, a naval transport ship.
During World War II, he designed government propaganda posters, was a war artist-correspondent for Life and Fortune, embedded with commando forces in occupied Greece. He covered the war in the South Pacific and was aboard the USS Missouri for the Japanese surrender in 1945. He then documented the war’s aftermath in Japan and China.
Returning home, Perlin began a series of “social realist” paintings, recording scenes of life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and became an illustrator for Harper’s, Collier’s, and Fortune well into the 1960s.
He lived in Italy from 1948 until 1954, aided by a Guggenheim Fellowship, and focused on “beautiful pictures,” including landscapes, still lifes, and figures. Returning to New York, he documented the “cocktail culture” of the late 1950s. In 1959, he moved to Ridgefield where his work became more abstract.
“People always ask me why my paintings are so different they might have been done by several artists,” Perlin told The Press when he was 94. “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 1962, a fire heavily damaged his Ridgebury home, destroying many valuable paintings. It was one of several blazes that had long response times from the village firehouse. The Perlin fire prompted Ridgeburians to petition the town and actively campaign for a Ridgebury firehouse. Six years later, the new station opened.
Perlin’s art is in many museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, Ashmolean, Museum of Modern Art, National Portrait Gallery, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Tate Modern in London, and the Whitney.
He continued to paint until just before his death in 2014 at age 95.
“Every painting is like a book,” he said. “... Every book is about something different, and has something different to say. That’s what painting is like.”— Jack Sanders