In the thirties the WPA decided it would be good to know just what the insides of Victorian homes, offices, and stores had looked like. The artist-historian Perkins Harnly created a sumptuous record.
Among the legacies of the Depression are the engaging watercolors of Perkins Harnly, an eighty-two-year-old artist who now lives in California. Struggling to support himself in New York during the bleak thirties, Harnly was lucky enough in 1938 to be assigned by the Federal Arts Project to record exactly what the interiors of Victorian homes and businesses had looked like. The FAP, seeking to employ artists, had established the Index of American Design in 1935; its task was to document the work of craftsmen before mass production rendered their skills obsolete.
Harnly had been raised in Nebraska, where he had been inspired by an architect grandfather who reveled in Victorian ornamentation—”copious gingerbread and endless gewgaws.” All that “heavenly architecture” left a strong impression on him and was ideal preparation for painting the jumbled, stuffed spaces of Victorian life. Harnly researched and composed twenty-five precise, witty paintings in all.
After World War II Harnly was discovered by Albert Lewin, a wealthy art collector who brought Harnly to Hollywood to work in movies. In 1946 Harnly returned to his catalog of interiors and Lewin continued as his patron. Eventually Lewin donated the new work—thirty-five more paintings—to the National Gallery of Art to join the rest of the Index. They were the subject of an exhibition at the National Museum of American Art earlier this year.
Harnly now lives in Culver City; he spends his mornings working as a counterman in a cafeteria and his afternoons painting. Although his recent work is much more contemporary in style, he has retained a particular affection for what he calls the “vigorous nostalgia” of his turn-of-thecentury interiors. He painted each room, he says, to look as though “the occupants have just been called to the telephone, leaving their life history behind.”