Lily Harmon

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.

Lily 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 answered.

The 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.

With the depression deepening in Paris, Lily returned to New York. She studied briefly at Parsons School then worked as an artist’s 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 in1932. 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 from 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.

The 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, New Haven, 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.

By 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.

Harmon 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.”

Lily 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 across 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 Harmon.

©2007 Rena Lindstrom All Rights Reserved