The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Bernard Perlin was born in 1918 in Richmond, Virginia. He was sent to art school in New York at age 16, and had early success as a muralist for public works projects. After hours, he immersed himself in the thriving "underground" gay culture of 1930s New York, eventually joining its artistic and social elite. After being rejected for military service during World War II due to his professed homosexuality, he went to work for the U.S. Office of War Information, designing popular propaganda posters for the war effort. He then became a war artist-correspondent for Life and Fortune magazines, bravely 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, and stayed on to document the war’s aftermath in Japan and China.
Returning to the United States, Perlin embarked on a series of “social realist” paintings, recording scenes of life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. During that time, he also became a successful illustrator for popular magazines such as Harper’s and Collier’s, continuing his relationship with those magazines as well as with Fortune well into the 1960s.
Perlin lived and painted in Italy from 1948 until 1954. There, he began to move away from the realism and social commentary of his previous work and instead paint, in his words, “beautiful pictures”: landscapes, still lifes, figures. He then returned to New York to document the “cocktail culture” of the late 1950s, producing a remarkable, bold series of “night pictures” that included scenes of jazz clubs, street boys, and underground gay bars - the latter very daring public works for their time. Perlin himself was then part of the upper echelon of New York gay society, a glittering “cufflink crowd” that included the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, and Truman Capote, along with his longtime associates George Platt Lynes, Glenway Wescott, Monroe Wheeler, Lincoln Kirstein, Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and George Tooker.
With Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art painters now fully commanding the New York art and social limelight, though, Perlin left the New York art scene for Connecticut in 1959. There, he continued his work as a figurative painter, although after switching from tempera to oil in the mid-1950s, his own work ironically became increasingly more abstract. He took a long hiatus from his art following the devastating loss of a lover to AIDS, but in recent years had resumed painting solely for his own pleasure. At the time of his passing, at age 95, he was at work on a new series of male nudes. He was also about to commemorate the 60th anniversary of his relationship with his life partner, Ed Newell, whom he had legally married in a celebratory political and emotional act in 2009 – some sixty years after enduring multiple arrests in the United States and France for “behavior against public decency.” Bernard Perlin was undeterred in his sexual pursuits until the very end, remaining active with a variety of playmates up until his final illness.