Thursday, February 5, 2009
Jeremiah Goodman, Illustrator
Architectural Digest,February 2002
Text by Christopher Finch
Artwork by Jeremiah Goodman
When artist Jeremiah Goodman paints the likeness of a room, it’s easy to imagine its celebrity owner—Sir John Gielgud‚ Greta Garbo, Diana Vreeland—moving through it, pausing to adjust a bibelot on a side table or to pick up a script tossed on a sofa.
“A portrait of a room,” says Jeremiah (professionally he has always used the single name), “should express the personality of the person who lives there—whose character has shaped it.”
Jeremiah’s paintings of interiors belong to a genre that had its heyday before the advent of photography. It remains valid today, however, when practiced by an artist who has the skill to imbue his subject matter with an inner vitality the camera cannot express. Jeremiah can evoke a brocade-upholstered chair or a Baroque mirror with a few calligraphic brushstrokes that both describe and animate. He conjures up space by combining a deceptively casual perspective (his choice of viewpoint is impeccable, his drawing always accurate) with plays of light and shadow that delineate form while creating atmosphere. Most important, he paints what he knows.
“Until the 1960s,” he says, “all of the paintings were made on the spot, in the room that was being portrayed. I still work that way when I can, as I did with the paintings I made recently of Elsa Peretti’s apartment in Spain. In some cases, though, it’s not possible to set up a worktable for the length of time that would be necessary, so in recent years I’ve sometimes worked from photographs, notes and sketches.”
A youthful 79-year-old, Jeremiah was born in Niagara Falls, New York, one of five children. “I was very lucky,” he says, “because my parents made sacrifices to allow me to study at Lafayette High School in Buffalo, which, at the height of the Depression, had no fewer than five art teachers, all first-class. One of them asked me what my ambitions were. I said that I wanted to be a Hollywood set designer, and after that I was permitted to carry out all my art projects with that in mind. If the assignment had to do with Scotland, I would design stage sets for Macbeth. That’s how I began to acquire the skills to paint interiors.”
Moving to New York City, he studied at the Franklin School of Professional Art, taking additional lessons at Parsons, and soon came to the attention of Joseph B. Platt, a leading decorator of the period who had created sets for Broadway and who came to national prominence with the interiors he designed for films such as Gone With the Wind. Platt helped Jeremiah launch his career, but, rather than becoming a Hollywood set designer, the young man decided to remain in New York, achieving success as an advertising and editorial illustrator.
From 1952 on, Jeremiah’s characteristically unstudied yet stylish renderings of everything from fashion accessories to furniture became a familiar feature of Lord & Taylor’s print advertisements. (“Sometimes‚” he says‚ “I would do as many as five pages a day— shoes, handbags, scent bottles!”) He also contributed to magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, and for 15 years he did monthly covers for Interior Design. This, in turn, garnered commissions from top decorators such as Eleanor LeMaire and Dorothy Draper, from industrial designers like Raymond Loewy and from leading architects, including Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei and even Buckminster Fuller‚ the inventor of the geodesic dome.
“I was asked by Fuller’s office to do some renderings of a project for a world’s fair‚” Jeremiah explains. “Unfortunately‚ some of the material I should have received failed to arrive‚ so I improvised something I thought would look like Fuller’s work. When he saw the drawings‚ he said‚ ‘I’ve never seen anything quite so wrong that looks quite so right.’ ”
Alongside this commercial activity, Jeremiah was making more personal portraits of interiors—paintings that depicted the homes of friends and acquaintances. Given his background, it is not surprising that these have included some of the greats of the design world, such as Billy Baldwin, David Hicks and Elsa Peretti. Others, from Garbo to Mary Martin and Hermione Gingold, have a show business pedigree.
“John Gielgud encouraged me to do these room portraits,” says Jeremiah. “I met him in 1948. Before then I had painted interiors for my own pleasure, but he invited me to England, where I went in 1949, and he began to introduce me to his friends. It was still very Brideshead Revisited in those days. I found myself traveling in the company of people like Ivor Novello, a great star at the time who went nowhere without an entourage. I was invited to stay at glorious country houses, and, being young and brash and American, and not knowing the rules, I probably overstayed my welcome at most of them. But I had a marvelous time, and I met wonderful people who were incredibly kind and generous. Billy Henderson, for example— who’d been aide-de-camp to Lord Wavell, the viceroy of India—simply loaned me his house in the south of France with all his servants.”
Back in New York, in the upper reaches of the fashion and decorating worlds, Jeremiah continued to encounter the kind of innovative individuals who set styles in a variety of arenas, and he continued to make portraits of their homes.
“You meet people in many different ways,” he says. “I illustrated a book for Dorothy Rodgers, My Favorite Things, which was a best-seller. She and Richard became friends of mine, and I had the opportunity to make paintings of their apartment at the Pierre.”
Room #3 for Greta Garbo: “Each person I came in contact with in doing these portraits was just fabulous—not one disappointed.” Jeremiah painted Greta Garbo’s New York residence in 1990 from earlier sketches.
Although Jeremiah sometimes works on canvas, in oil or acrylic, the great majority of the room portraits are done on illustration board in a combination of transparent watercolor and opaque gouache, a medium of which he has masterly command. His earliest interiors are more literal and less atmospheric than later examples, but they already display a mature sense of graphic economy, each swag and chandelier set down with the minimum of fuss.
The influence of John Singer Sargent’s bravura watercolor technique was present in Jeremiah’s work from the first, but by the 1960s it had evolved into something more personal as he learned to articulate complex chiaroscuro with rapid brushwork. Another acknowledged influence has been Japanese brush painting. This is most evident in Jeremiah’s striking grisaille studies—orchestrations of black, white and gray that hark back to the days when he was creating black-and-white images for newspaper ads.
In recent years—as in a painting of Elsa Peretti’s drawing room, dated 2000 —the sense of atmosphere and controlled improvisation is more fully developed than ever. The technique is so fluid and assured that details of the imagery could be taken as examples of Zen calligraphy. Although the tonal range is darker, the overall freedom of expression might be compared to the impromptu splendor of J. M. W. Turner’s famous interiors of Petworth House.
Jeremiah’s interior portraits are wonderfully loose and evocative of period, yet at the same time they are so full of particularized information—from the texture of fabrics to the meticulous rendering of paintings hanging on the walls—that they form a unique record of the work of many of the classic decorators of the past half century. These decorators, in turn, have always understood that they were dealing with an artist of singular talents. When Jeremiah met the legendary Billy Baldwin for the first time, in connection with an assignment for Harper’s Bazaar, he found that his reputation had preceded him. Baldwin, notoriously a perfectionist, simply handed over a sheaf of notes and said, “Go ahead, dear boy—I know it will be beautiful.”