Bernard Perlin, 95, celebrated American artist

Bernard Perlin
Bernard Perlin

Bernard Perlin of Ridgefield, a celebrated artist with works in major museum collections, died on Tuesday, Jan. 14, at his home. He was 95 years old and the husband of Edward Newell.

“Every painting is like a book,” Mr. Perlin told The Ridgefield Press last summer. “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.”

The son of Davis and Anna Perlin, Mr. Perlin was born on Nov. 21, 1918 in Richmond, Va. He studied at the New York School of Design, National Academy of Design, and the Art Students League in New York.

Early artistic successes included a Kosciusko Foundation Award for study in Poland (1938) and two significant commissions: one from the U.S. Treasury Department for a mural for the South Orange, N. J., Post Office (1939); the other from the U.S. Maritime Commission for murals for the SS President Hayes (1940).

After designing popular propaganda posters for the U.S. Government during World War II, Mr. Perlin became a war artist-correspondent for Life and Fortune magazines, embedding with commando forces in occupied Greece and later covering the war in the South Pacific and Asia. He 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 embarked on 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 and Collier’s, continuing his relationship with those magazines as well as with Fortune well into the 1960s.

Mr. Perlin lived and painted in Italy from 1948 until 1954 with the assistance of a Chaloner Foundation Award and a subsequent Guggenheim Fellowship. There, he began to move away from the social realism of his previous work and instead paint, in his words, “beautiful pictures”: landscapes, still lifes, figures.

He returned to New York to document the “cocktail culture” of the late 1950s, but in reaction to the rise of Abstract Expressionism, Mr. Perlin left the New York art scene for Ridgefield in 1959. Here, he continued his work as a figurative painter, although in switching from tempera to oil in the mid-1950s, his own 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. “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.”

He continued to paint up until his final illness.

Bernard Perlin’s art is in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; Ashmolean Museum; Columbus Museum of Art; Detroit Institute of Arts; de Young Museum, San Francisco; Museum of Modern Art; National Academy Museum; National Portrait Gallery; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City; Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Princeton University Art Museum; Smith College Museum of Art; Smithsonian American Art Museum; Tate Modern, London; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; 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.

In July 1962, a fire badly burned Mr. Perlin’s Ridgebury home. The blaze, which destroyed much art, prompted the Ridgebury Community Association to petition the town to build a Ridgebury firehouse. Six years later, the new station opened.

Besides his partner of 57 years, Mr. Perlin is survived by a niece, Janice Barson-Ryone; great-nephew Kenneth Klein and great-niece Allison Klein-Kruter; and close friends Edward Insull, Carl Bailey, Lauren Dalton, and Michael Schreiber.

Contributions in his memory may be made to the Danbury Grassroots Tennis and Enrichment Program, PO Box 2912, Danbury, CT 06813.