Revisiting the Legacy of Bernard Harmon and More With Gratz Gallery

James Ardis
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Although he passed away at the age of 54, Bernard Harmon spent decades inspiring many as a painter, teacher, and champion of Black artists. On March 21st, 2021, Gratz Gallery will celebrate Harmon by offering three of his works in the Fine American Paintings Sale & Live Online Auction. The owner and head conservator of Gratz Gallery, Paul Gratz, sat down with Auction Daily to discuss Harmon and the other artists represented in this sale.

Best Friends by Bernard Harmon. Photo courtesy of Gratz Gallery.
Best Friends by Bernard Harmon. Photo courtesy of Gratz Gallery.

Auction Daily: Gratz Gallery’s upcoming Fine American Paintings Sale & Live Online Auction will feature three works by portrait painter Bernard Harmon. Tell our readers a bit about his life and career.

Paul Gratz: Bernard Harmon was born in Philadelphia in 1935. He was a graduate of the Philadelphia Museum School and Temple Tyler School of Art. Harmon was a public school teacher and taught in the Philadelphia School District for 32 of his 54 years of life. He also taught at the Pennsylvania Academy for the Fine Arts, University of the Arts, and Drexel University. He organized many early and important shows, including the “Afro American Artists 1800 – 1969” at the Museum of the Philadelphia Civic Center in 1969. Harmon was a well-loved teacher, became an innovator in art curriculums, traveled extensively to Europe and South America, and was a beloved mentor and advocate of African American artists and gifted students.

Auction Daily: Along with being a renowned painter and teacher, Bernard Harmon also championed his fellow Black artists. What stands out to you about this aspect of Harmon’s life? And what can the auction industry learn from Harmon as it tries to tear down racial biases?

Paul Gratz: Bernard Harmon loved his students regardless of color or origin. His portraits reflect that sentiment in the strength, uniqueness, and individuality of every person represented in his paintings. He promoted African American artists way before it became popular, because it was about humanity, not popularity. He saw the importance of equality in a most natural way, being a mentor and advocate where he saw it was most needed.

Jazz by Bernard Harmon. Photo courtesy of Gratz Gallery.
Jazz by Bernard Harmon. Photo courtesy of Gratz Gallery.

Art education was at the forefront of his passion; he even developed a program offering advanced placement art classes for gifted students. This passion for art education and being a teacher in the public school system allowed him to reach truly gifted and passionate students of all colors. Harmon died at an early age, and only small collections of his works are still available today. But he left behind a legacy of love for his students and commitment to the arts. He was considered a Renaissance man amongst friends and colleagues. 

Auction Daily: Two portraits and one still life by Harmon will be on offer in this auction. What should collectors know about these particular works before the bidding begins?

Paul Gratz: One of the portraits, titled Jazz, is an example of the artist’s layered and expressionist work. The painting is a vibrant and expressive portrait of a violin player, immersed in the joy of her music. The work is very energetic in its choice of colors and movement of brushwork, yet her facial expression is that of pure bliss and finding calm within her music. 

The second portrait, Best Friends, articulates a similar blend of movement and stillness, where energy and calm coexist harmoniously. The still life is a true burst of energy in bright reds and orange, full of excitement, very expressionistic.

Orange, Red, Green Plant by Bernard Harmon. Photo courtesy of Gratz Gallery.
Orange, Red, Green Plant by Bernard Harmon. Photo courtesy of Gratz Gallery.

Auction Daily: There are nearly 100 lots of fine art in this sale. Beyond Harmon, what are some of the highlights? And what are, in your opinion, some of the hidden gems?

Paul Gratz: There are many wonderful works by classic Pennsylvania Impressionists such as Walter Baum, Henry Snell, and Rae Sloan Bredin of the New Hope School. But the John Pierce Barnes and Hugh Breckenridge landscapes are fantastic examples of balancing light and color in American Impressionism. I would consider both true and hidden gems. Also included is an extraordinary portrait by figure, genre, and landscape painter Charles Courtney Curran of a young woman, called Scarlett in Gold.

Scarlett in Gold by Charles Courtney Curran. Photo courtesy of Gratz Gallery.
Scarlett in Gold by Charles Courtney Curran. Photo courtesy of Gratz Gallery.

Another wonderful painting included in the sale is a landscape by Hudson River artist John Frederick Kensett. Kaaterskill Falls was painted in the Catskills, New York. One of the rare gems included is a landscape by famed Pennsylvania woodworker and furniture designer Wharton Esherick. There are not many paintings available from this artist because he only painted early in his career and later focused mostly on his furniture design. I think collectors interested in this sale will find a great selection of traditional and contemporary works of well-known and unknown artists alike.

Auction Daily: This is Gratz Gallery’s fourth annual Fine American Paintings Sale & Live Online Auction. How has the ongoing pandemic changed the dynamic of this yearly sale?

Paul Gratz: We have been very fortunate in that we have been able to find great success in selling art through our website, online platforms and now looking toward the upcoming auction. Collectors and art enthusiasts can engage in the bidding and buying of artwork from the comfort and safety of their homes. We are thrilled that through the creativity and versatility of online selling, we have been able to stay in touch with collectors and therefore are blessed to be able to keep our doors open, physically and virtually.  

Online auctions have offered a welcome alternative for collectors to continue their support of the arts, and they certainly provide an exciting diversion from the isolation felt by many during the pandemic. We feel energetic and hopeful about the smooth integration of online selling into our brick-and-mortar style gallery and conservation studio. 

Pennsylvania Landscape by Wharton Esherick. Photo courtesy of Gratz Gallery.
Pennsylvania Landscape by Wharton Esherick. Photo courtesy of Gratz Gallery.

Bidding in Gratz Gallery’s Fine American Paintings & Live Online Auction begins on March 21st, 2021, at 12:00 PM EDT. Those interested can check out the full catalog on Invaluable

Want to read more interviews with industry experts? Auction Daily recently spoke with Katie Horstman of Cowan’s Auctions about an African Americana sale this past February. 

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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