A Life in Art
When I saw my first Lily Harmon, a small lithograph called “the Dressing Room”, made in 1940, I was pierced by the acute tenderness of a sweetly voluptuous lady going unself-consciously about her shopping, oblivious to her observer. For Lily, painting was a passion, a drive, a way of understanding her world, and an act of love. Once she described a brushstroke as “a caress”.
Everyone who knew Lily Harmon knew her zest for life. Her attitude
toward painting, and toward the world, was wide open. She would
not be contained, but she absorbed everything.
announced to her parents upon high school graduation that she
would go to Yale Art School, since “I’m going to
study art anyway.” “Painting is a nice hobby for a
girl,” her mother responded. “It’s my life work,” Lily
summer after graduating, Lily came to Provincetown (1929) and
studied with Henry Hensche. “I felt I was really living,” she
says. In the fall, not quite 17, she entered Yale School of Fine
Arts. She found it oppressive and pedantic. She sailed to Austria
that summer to study dance at the Isadora Duncan School. She wasn’t
really interested in being a dancer, but in the adventure of travel.
She ran away from the school, which was “anti-Semitic” and “treated
us like children”. What she really wanted was to be in
Paris. Now I can do as I please, she thought. I
shall be free for the
first time in my life. Her worried parents allow her to stay
in Paris if she will study or get a job.
the depression deepening in Paris, Lily returned to New York.
She studied briefly at Parsons School then worked
model. She met Peter Harnden, dashing and handsome, with whom she
eloped, looking for “escape”, but found herself stuck
in housewifery in Washington, DC, while he studied diplomacy
at Georgetown. She divorced him in Reno and returned to New York
Over the next forty years, Lily struggled with trying to reconcile
her desire to live independently and creatively and her need
for the traditional security of marriage, which pulled her away
painting. She married three more times before she found a way
to resolve this conflict in her marriage, at 60, to Milton Schachter.
In New York again, working and living among other artists, she
achieved a productive rhythm and was accepted into prestigious
competitive exhibitions. She was included in group exhibitions
at the National Gallery, the Whitney, and the Pennsylvania Academy
of Arts. Then, in 1942, two paintings were accepted for the Artists
for Victory exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, and she began
to attract critical attention.
New Haven Register described the two portraits in the exhibition
as having “a quality strongly reminiscent of Renoir.” She
was drawn to portraits, she said, “Because I really like
people. I’m terribly interested in people.” Many of
these portraits are sensitive portrayals of mothers and children
and some art writers of the day ascribed these themes to feminine
painting. One is reminded of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t
I a Woman?” when hearing Lily’s response to those critics: “I
didn’t see any point in denying the fact that I was a woman.
I was interested in things that women were interested in.” This
was a time when few galleries would even represent women and male
critics seemed incapable of thinking of female artists outside
their destiny as wives and mothers. The quaintly sexist term “delightful” appears
in several of the exhibition’s reviews, and more than one
writer commented on Lily’s personal beauty. But the New York
Times perceived “evidence of a very real emerging talent…proof
of originality and a developing personal style.” She was
28 years old.
Harmon’s style was inconsistent in that it was always changing,
developing. She was never afraid to go off in a new direction in
life or art. Lily herself says that in the early days, whoever
she was studying or looking at or associating with had influence
on her style. Painted when she was 16, Hillhouse Avenue,
brings Chagall to mind. Gauguin’s bold color and exotic theme
inform Girl in Yellow Chinese Jacket, 1930. The Dressing Room,
mentioned above, from 1940, has the naturalism and humanistic sympathy
of Yasuo Kuniyoshi, who kept a studio across the hall from Lily’s
14th street studio and with whom Lily had a love affair. In the
40s, influenced by the depression and the war, Harmon took up more
socially conscious themes. “We were convinced we were going
to change the world,” she said.
As she became more confident, she became more expressive and many
of her paintings of the 50s and 60s, while still essentially realistic,
had strong Expressionist overtones created through line and color.
In Red Sails, 1950, Suburban Daydream, 1952, and Provincetown,
1958 (cover), she brings the scaffolding to the surface, showing
a developing reliance on line for contour and shadow. The crisscrossing
net of dark, scratchy lines serves to break down the central form
and charge the surface plane with energy, a clear departure in
style which moved her toward the distillation of form that characterizes
her later work.
the 70s, Harmon was combining figure and ground in a simplified
composition that gave place a prominent role
and magnified the
narrative thread of her subject. She was also making found object
sculpture, “junk that wants to live together”, and
collages during this time.
became a “year-rounder” in Provincetown after
her ten-year marriage to financier and art collector Joseph Hirshhorn
ended in1956. She loved Provincetown, saying “Life in Provincetown
is a very rich, full-bodied thing and seems to bring out the
best in people.”
Harmon died in New York City in1998. She had pursued her work
with passion from the beginning. The paintings
in this exhibition
reveal the influences of her life in art. In structure, form,
and gesture they tell a story of the transit of American painting
much of the twentieth century; but the psychological insight,
the exceptional ability to see beyond the surface of her subjects,
the sympathetic attitude which allowed her to recognize and
make visible their essential character—that is pure Lily