Suzanne Perlman

Expressionist painter influenced by ancient Hebrew melodies on the island of Curaçao


Renowned for her work as an accomplished Expressionist artist, Suzanne Perlman, who has died at the age of 97, found great inspiration in the works of Goya and Van Gogh, among others, and felt drawn to painting ordinary figures including women washing clothes in a tin bucket, street vendors and ritual dancers. Another masterful painting was of a poor young couple lying on their bed as they contemplated their problems, and she also produced some nude portraits, both sensuous and austere.

Born in Budapest in 1922, to Abraham and Elisabeth Sternberg, who were antique dealers, and with an older brother Sigmund, Suzanne decided to study at home and help her mother in the business after her father died when she was 13. Working with the antiques became a great inspiration. As she once wrote: “The art and antique store was a preparation for life”. In the store she catalogued postcards of paintings of several great artists, and felt quite familiar with them when she later saw the originals in museums. In fact, her talent for art was self-taught, and it continued to blossom for many, many years.

At the age of 17, she married Heinz Perlman, a Dutch grain trader and the couple moved to Rotterdam. However, Heinz soon received an urgent telegram from a French government minister, who was a friend of theirs, asking him to come to Paris concerning an order for grain. In fact, it proved a means of saving their lives as the Nazi threat in Holland was imminent; three days later the invasion took place. Soon after arriving in Paris, the couple were advised to relocate to the Dutch Caribbean island, Curaçao. They were fortunate enough to board the last ship leaving Europe.

After arriving in Curaçao, Suzanne was enraptured to hear – in her own words – “ancient Hebrew melodies to welcome the Sabbath bride.” These, she discovered, came from a Sephardi synagogue, founded on the island in 1674, and its festivals and rituals were captured in her colourful and often enigmatic paintings. While she was captivated by the beauty of the beaches and the sea, it was this synagogue that made her feel at home on the island.

She and Heinz settled into life in Willemstad, Curaçao’s capital city, and their three sons, Robert, Louis and George were born there. The couple set up an antique business called Fanny’s Shop, where Suzanne had an attic studio, and she managed to balance motherhood with work in the business. But it was painting she enjoyed most, and she built lasting friendships with many of her subjects. Her paintings also included landscapes which reflected the island’s social and economic set up. One particularly famous painting of the Shell Oil Refinery, Dry Dock, was bought by the Rijksmuseum a year ago.

From the late 1950s, she spent some time in New York and Florida and became acquainted with Abstract Impressionism. Some years later, she attended a workshop in Salzburg run by Oscar Kokoschka. He then invited her to work beside him in his studio for the summer, which enabled her to follow her own artistic instincts. Her first major solo exhibition was in the Curaçao Museum in 1961.

Heinz died in 1983 and after that Suzanne spent more time in London. She worked from a studio in St John’s Wood and later settled in that district. It was there that I first became acquainted with her, in 1988, after meeting her brother, the philanthropist, interfaith campaigner and business maven, Sir Sigmund Sternberg, whose biography I later wrote. I was immediately drawn to Suzanne and visited her from time to time, and we frequently spoke on the phone until a few months before her death. I was amazed at how compos mentis and au fait with everything she remained well into her 90s.

Her art continued to prosper, and she had solo shows in the Boundary Gallery in 1993 and 1997. In 2000, her painting, Parliament with the Burghers of Calais was bought by the Parliamentary Art Collection and now hangs in the House of Lords.

Another exhibition, Painting London, was at the Ben Uri Gallery in 2014 and included her 2005 work, Bank Holiday in St. James’s Park, which depicted several figures in a lively and harmonious composition.

She received well deserved critical success, notably with a retrospective exhibition at the Dutch Centre in London in 2018.

As her granddaughter Elisabeth Perlman wrote: “Suzanne’s art was always a reflection of her identity. She was fluent in many languages but retained her Hungarian accent. She was proud of her Jewish heritage and painted several rabbinic scholars, including an early 19th century leader of European Jewry, Akiva Eger, who was one of her ancestors.”

She is survived by Robert, Louis and George, five grandchildren and a great granddaughter.


Suzanne Perlman, born October 18, 1922, died August 2, 2020

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