From Russia, Eugene Berman became a painter known for his imaginary landscapes and for his Baroque stage set designs including for ballets and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In France, he became a leader among the Neo-Romantic artists, who defied the prevalent abstract movements including Cubism and Futurism and focused on expression of human emotion. He and his peers, including Georgio De Chirico, depicted a fantasy world of loneliness and isolation that existed only in their minds.
He was fascinated by solitary figures amidst ruins, and much of his work explored space and the passing of time. He painted with oil on canvas and achieved the smooth effect of the Old Masters. In his landscapes, he placed his figures and architectural structures very precisely with an order that encouraged viewer contemplation and did not offer distractions.
Berman was born into a wealthy family of professionals in St. Petersburg in 1899. His father died when he was seven, but his stepfather willingly paid for his art education in Germany, Switzerland, and France. In 1918, during the Bolshevik Revolution, he fled with his family to Paris where he studied art at the Academie Ranson from 1920 to 1922. Pierre Bonnard, a Neo-Romanticist, was a major influence on his canvases because of Bonnard's focus on color, pattern, and design.
By the late 1920s, Berman finally was having success selling his paintings, which was a contrast to his struggles in the past when he had little money and could not afford canvases nor the quality pigment he needed. To overcome these hurdles, he had bought old paintings at flea markets, repaired the canvas, and painted over them.
In 1929, Berman had his first exhibition in America, and it was held at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York. Berman and Levy had met in Paris, where Levy had shown much interest in Surrealism and Neo Romanticism. From 1929 to 1947, Berman continued to exhibit at the Levy Gallery.
In Berman's paintings, he showed his fascination with architecture, a subject that he often explored in eerie landscapes. He toured Europe extensively, especially Italy, to learn more about architecture and developed a special interest in the Baroque architectural drawings of Giovanni Guercino (1591-1666).
In 1935, Berman became a war refugee as did his brother, Leonid, and the two men moved to the United States, joining many of their refugee friends in New York. He became a U.S. citizen, and stayed first in New York and then moved to Los Angeles, where he married Ona Muson. They traveled widely and did well because his paintings gained increasing acceptance in America.
In 1937, Town and Country magazine had his work on the cover, and that same year, he began designing sets for ballet performances. He also designed sets for hundreds of Metropolitan Opera performances as well as European opera companies, something from which he retired in 1955. His stage sets included productions of Rigoletto, Don Giovanni, and Othello, dramatic performances that fit his inclinations for intensification and heightened emotions. In this artist's view, "human experience is only a part of a theatrical and surreal dream infused with a sense of tragedy". (Geske 10)
In 1947 and 1949, Berman had Guggenheim Fellowships with which he toured the Southwest and Mexico, and in these landscapes, he found the desolate images that accorded with his earlier Neo-Romantic and Surrealist paintings that were derived only from his imagination. On his return, he did a series of Pre-Columbian and Baroque monuments that he had seen in Mexico.
In the 1950s and 60s, many international shows of his work were held, including exhibitions of his theatre designs. In 1957, he retired to Rome, where he pursued his interest in people in relation to ancient buildings and landscapes, and he died there in 1972.
Berman was a quiet, introspective man of whom it was said that he listened more than talked. He was intense and highly observant.