Gerald Murphy: 7 Years as a Painter

The decade between the end of the Great War and the beginning of America’s Great Depression was a time of great artistic renaissance in war-torn Europe. During those magical few years, American expatriate writers F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, James Joyce, and John Dos Passos lived and worked shoulder-to-shoulder with European art superstars Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, Georges Braque, and Natalia Goncharova.  Completing the small circle of dedicated Paris-based friends were composers Cole Porter, Eric Satie, and Igor Stravinsky, playwright Philip Barry, poets Ezra Pound and Archibald MacLeish, the members of the ballet company Ballet Russes, and photographer Man Ray.  The unlikely glue – the community hub - that brought these young bright artists together was a young American couple living well on a modest inherited income: Gerald and Sara Murphy.  

Having never painted before (or after), Gerald Murphy produced 14 paintings between the years of 1922 and 1929 that received critical acclaim and won the praise of some of the finest artists in the 20th century.  Nearly 100 years later, art historians consider Murphy’s paintings to be seminal American art for the period, and praise for his work is nearly universal.  Arts writer Susan Saccoccia writes, “He rapidly gained fame as a distinctly American cubist painter, developing in seven years a small body of paintings now regarded as major works of American modernism” (26). Brooklyn Museum curator Teresa Carbone, who mounted a major traveling show on Murphy in 2008, writes, “He produced a small but significant body of paintings in the Precisionist style that lend formal grace and aesthetic important to elements of American industry and commercial culture” (198). Dorothy Kosinski, Director of the Phillips Collection, has said, “Gerald Murphy’s sudden appearance on the stage of avant-garde art exhibitions in Paris in the 1920s, no matter how brief, piqued the interest of prominent art critics, whose comments insisted on something quintessentially “American” in his work” (Rothschild 199). Noted art critic and author Peter Schjeldahl writes, “Gerald’s paintings are a gold standard that backs, with creative integrity, the paper money of the couple’s legend” (Schjeldahl).  How could a man who painted only 14 paintings in a career spanning just 7 years have had such contemporary reaction and such a lasting legacy?  The answer to that question appears to be an interesting once-in-a-lifetime combination of raw talent, the ability to seize opportunities, a capacity for creating deep, long-lasting friendships, and wonderful serendipity.  I will chronicle Murphy’s seven year output in the context of the times, look at both contemporary criticism and how his work has stood the test of time, and offer observations on the development of his style as evidenced by both the six works that remain and the four existing photographs of lost work.

Post-war periods often spark an interest in the arts for an understandable reason:  the arts provide a balm, a counterpoint, for the horrors and destruction of war.  Europe in the period after the Great War was no exception.  In fact, this particular post-war renaissance surprisingly permitted the barely-one-hundred-year-old America to enthrall the cultural world of Paris, which had been the center of culture for as long as anyone could remember.  Suddenly, America represented everything new – skyscrapers and cocktails and fancy household gadgets – and Europe wanted all of it.  Vanity Fair devoted a good number of pages in the 1920s to articles about traveling abroad, who was traveling, where they were staying, and how to live like royalty while in Europe. In 1922, Edmund Wilson wrote,

Young Americans going lately to Paris in hopes of drinking culture at its source have been startled to find young Frenchmen looking longingly toward America.  In France they discover that the very things they have come abroad to get away from  - the machines, the advertisements, the elevators and jazz – have begun to fascinate the French at the expense of their own amenities. (Wilson)

Rothschild summarizes the phenomenon,

Whereas Americans had once looked across the Atlantic for the latest ideas and fashions, the situation was now reversed: many Europeans admired American style and no longer viewed the United States as a backwater, but as an exciting modern nation – a place of engineering feats and innovations like skyscrapers, suspension bridges, cars, planes, electric appliances, and mass-produced goods, as well as a source of cultural imports such as jazz, cocktails, movies, and comic strips.  The Murphys epitomized modern America in their taste, informality, and up-to-date stylishness. (29) 

Gerald Murphy was the son of the owner of the tony Mark Cross Company, a New York and Boston retailer specializing in leather goods, cocktail shakers, wristwatches, driving gloves, and fine luxury items imported from Europe. Gerald cheekily referred to the family business as a “monument to the nonessential” (Rothschild 21).  By the early 1920s he had graduated from Yale University, worked 6 years in the family business, studied landscape architecture at Harvard, married well, and started a family.  When his Harvard academic program moved into the new science of urban planning, Murphy, disinterested, decided instead to visit Europe to see some of the gardens he had been studying. The Murphys and their three small children arrived for a visit in 1921 and stayed for the entire decade.  Art historian Elizabeth Hutton Turner notes, “He approached Paris rather like a character from a Henry James novel – a member of a cosmopolitan class on a grand tour of the continent” (131).  Both Gerald and Sara had modest incomes from their families.  The 1920s currency exchange rate favored them and allowed them to live comfortably.   Originally in Paris, the Murphys eventually settled year-round in a small villa in Antibes with a tiered garden and beach. The Picassos spent two summers in Antibes with them, the Fitzgeralds visited many times, as did most of their friends.  They also maintained a small apartment in Paris and came to the city at least monthly.   Certainly, this unique period of time and the inspiration of the people with which he surrounded himself all played an important role in Murphy’s development as a painter.

Immediately upon his arrival in Paris, Gerald was enamored with the Cubist art displayed in the avant-garde galleries.  Douglas MacAgy, who introduced Murphy to American audiences decades later in a 1960 Dallas show, quotes Murphy, “On the Rue la Boetie, in passing Rosenberg’s gallery I saw in his window, for the first time, paintings by Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Juan Gris.  There was a shock of recognition which put me into an entirely new orbit!” (MacAgy 50). Before long he had enlisted avant-garde artist and designer Natalia Goncharova to teach him to paint.  Goncharova, a founding member of the non-objective German painting school Der Blaue Reiter was in Paris painting and designing sets and costumes for Ballets Russes.  Biographer (and Murphy neighbor in the 1960s) Calvin Tomkins has quoted Murphy, “The ballet was the focal center of the whole modern movement in the arts” (Tomkins).  Many artists of the time, including Picasso, Braque, and Derain, designed for the ballet; it was here that the Murphys met many of their new friends.  For the next decade, they lived and partied together, often working side-by-side on projects in the arts.  MacAgy writes, “Painters went to concerts, composers to plays, writers to exhibitions.  Novel among artists in general at any time, the joint spirit has not been quite the same since” (52).

While Gerald had never painted before, he apparently had both good taste and excellent drafting skills acquired during his landscape architecture coursework.  Combining those abilities with the six months of Goncharova’s modern painting instruction, Murphy took a studio in Paris and began to paint.  Later, when he moved his family full-time to Antibes in 1924, he outfitted a garage building as his studio. Between 1922 and 1929, when the Murphys left France (never to return), Gerald painted fourteen pictures. Only six paintings (Fig. 1-6) remain, “…the others were lost, owing largely to his own indifference” (Schjeldahl). Black and white photographs of only four of the lost works exist (Fig. 7-9).  A look at Murphy’s painting output in chronological order reveals an unexpected growth in style considering the paucity and short timeframe of his output.  He worked slowly and produced amazingly authentic work that is not at all derivative of the icons of 20th century art with whom he was surrounded.  

In February 1923, Murphy brought his first paintings to the Salon des Independants for exhibition, just a year after his six months of lessons with Goncharova:  Turbines (Fig. 8), Engine Room (also known as Pressure) (Fig. 7), a watercolor, Taxi, and a pencil drawing, Crystals.  Despite there being 6000 objects exhibited in 70 rooms (Rothschild 34), Murphy’s work was cited in the New York Herald’s Paris Edition.  “… Murphy’s “very personal point of view in the study of machinery” was characterized as “centrifugalist” with ”a feeling for mass and a sense of decorative effect” (Rubin 20). Gerald’s brother Fred wrote their mother [from Paris] on February 23, 1923: “Gerald’s pictures in the salons, depicting a futurist idea of the power of machinery, are an enormous success, and the painter has had several requests for photographs of his work and of himself.”  The caption to a photo of Turbines in the June 1923 issue of the magazine Shadowland reads: “Gerald Murphy’s cubistic studies of machinery were the center of attraction for the critics on Varnishing Day”  (Rothschild 37).

The next year, 1924, he again entered a painting in the Salon des Independents.  Murphy’s wit and sense of humor show in the ensuing episode.  His entry was an 18 by 12 foot (!) painting, Boatdeck (Fig. 9).  Turner writes, “It was like a billboard.  The size made copy for three days in the Paris Herald.  The audaciousness of this event seems to have established Murphy among painters in Paris” (141).  MacAgy notes that Boatdeck took up almost the entire wall space allotted to all American artists in total (53). The Paris New York Herald reporter tells the story with great flair and melodrama:

When Gerald Murphy, American artist, descended upon the Grand Palais with an ocean liner in tow, he also drew in his wake a tempest of the first order. As a result of the installation of his 18-foot-high composite painting of the Olympic and the Paris there arose a storm that ended yesterday in the resignations of M. Paul Signac, president of the Society of Independent Artists, and M. Leveille and M. Carlos Reymond, members of the executive committee of the Society.

Here was something unusual, certainly, by one of those Americans who love to smash tradition by doing unusual things….  Then the committee got a look at the canvas while workmen proceeded to mount it in its frame.  It was a flaming, vivid affair.  Unmistakeably [sic] it was the picture of a great ship, and more unmistakably [sic] the great ship had three immense smokestacks.  They were smokestacks that struck one, so to speak, and made no apologies for it….

Exactly what happened then [after the hanging] has not been told - probably never will be.  It seems to have been that kind of a storm.  But there were protests, loud, vigorous and varied, and the protests centred [sic] about the place allotted to Mr. Murphy's picture… When the storm had passed M. Signac and the other two members of the committee had written their resignations…

"If they think my pictures are too big, I think the other pictures are too small," he [Murphy] remarked dryly.  "After all it is the Grand Palais.  And I made no attempt to be sensational…" (“New York Herald Paris Edition”)

Boatdeck was reproduced in avant-garde magazines L’Effort Moderne and later in L’Art Vivant along with Razor, where author Jacques Mauny wrote, “Gerald Murphy holds an alluring place… [his art] explains the new American taste; like a stroll on Park Avenue it shows us the instruments of prosaic life executed to perfection.  His taste for the mechanical is engaging” (Mauny).

Murphy’s first three paintings were similar in both iconography and style.  Crossing the Atlantic was all the rage at the time and Murphy certainly knew the ocean liner and engine room themes would resonate with viewers.  His style leans toward a realistic one employing modeling and perspective although his use of unconventional composition, cropping, and subject is notable.  After these three paintings, however, Murphy’s style and iconography shifted again and again.  It’s difficult to call them “periods” in Murphy’s case because each period represents only two or three paintings.  However, the change in subject matter and style suggest growth as a painter despite the short few years in which he produced paintings.

The following year, 1925, Murphy exhibited Watch (Fig. 2) at des Independants.

Rothschild writes, “Watch is perhaps the best example of what [French art historian] Jocelyne Rotily has called Murphy’s ‘sacred approach to modern American objects.’ … It was highly prised as “astonishing” and “seducing,” and that has remained the consensus through time” (63).  Regarding the subject, Rubin explains, “This is an amalgam of two watches that were very familiar to him.  One was a railroad watch specifically designed for Mark Cross.  The other was a small gold pocket watch that, according to Murphy’s daughter, Honoria, he especially loved and kept propped up on a table with its mechanism showing” (34). He goes on to write, “…reaction to it at the Salon was very favorable.  Murphy…. has revealed that the motif of a watch is “as plastically exploitable as … Cezanne’s apples” (35). The New York Times wasn’t quite as taken with the painting and ran a lengthy review under the headline, “Boston Man Exhibits ‘Oddest Paris Painting’”:

Among all the odd paintings which this year are exhibited at the annual salon of the Society of Independent Artists, opened today, the first prize for the most unusual work comes near being earned by the American artist Gerald Murphy.

Murphy is a young man of original ideas.  For the subject of his picture he chose a watch.  To most persons there are two ways of painting a watch.  One may paint the inside of one or one may paint the outside.  But Mr. Murphy has done better.  In different tones of yellow, gray, blue and black he has painted the whole watch.”

First, he disarticulated it and laid all the bits around.  Wheels, hands, dial, ratchets, regulators, in whole or part, are depicted in a nightmare of geometry and mechanics.  Above some other paintings of his colleagues, Mr. Murphy’s picture has this merit, that one can most unmistakably see what his subject is.  The watch fails in this only, probably, that no skilled watchmaker could ever make it go. (“New York Times” 1923)

This review suggests the sarcastic unfamiliarity that American journalists still had with avant garde painting in the 1920s.

Murphy’s next exhibition was Exposition International d'Art d'Aujourd'hui  in December 1925, where both Watch and Razor (Fig. 1) (painted in 1924 before Watch) were shown.  Murphy’s friends Picasso and Leger also had work in this show and complimented their friend Gerald’s talent. MacAgy writes, “… Leger hailed him as the only modern American painter in Paris” (49).  Murphy considered life-long friend Leger “an apostle, a mentor, a teacher” (Rothschild 43), so doubtless this praise meant a great deal to him.  Also around this time, Murphy wistfully recalls Picasso saying to him, “J'aime beaucoup les choses que vous faites (I love the things you do)” (MacAgy 49). Turner writes, “His [Murphy’s] direct approach, precise forms, and carefully organized surfaces captured what Picasso [a serious Abraham Lincoln collector] once told him he saw in a Brady photo of Lincoln: “real American elegance” (145).  The iconography in Razor depicts two items that would have been sold by his father at Mark Cross stores – the Parker fountain pen and the newly patented Gillette safety razor. Critical acclaim for the two works continues to the present day:

Like Gerald himself, his paintings are refined, elegant, and original.  Even eighty years after their creation, they appear remarkably fresh and modern.  Looking at them reveals another dimension of the Murphys’ way of “making it new.”  Razor, which transfers Gerald’s long-standing appreciation of humble objects – in this case a matchbook, fountain pen, and safety razor – into paint on canvas, partakes of the then still novel modernist penchant for elevating the commonplace to high-art status.” (Rothschild 59)

About both Watch and Razor, which represent Murphy’s second “phase” of iconography, Carbone writes,

The impressive scale of Murphy’s still-life paintings evokes a billboard aesthetic, though the actual sizes of the objects depicted conform to the more intimate dimensions of the magazine ad.  The three-foot fountain pen and two-foot safety razor in Razor, 1924, speak of the reach of American business culture and also invite analogies with architecture’s streamlining aesthetic of design totality and efficiency as elegance - especially in the work of [architect] Le Corbusier, a friend of Leger’s and a fellow Purist. (199-201)

Saccoccia makes another interesting connection, “Anticipating pop art, Gerald’s paintings break the boundary between everyday objects and art as Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns would do decades later” (29).

During 1925, Murphy completed two more paintings, Doves (Fig. 3) and Laboratory. Laboratory has been lost and no photograph of it exists.  Doves was never exhibited until the Dallas show of 1960.  This painting represents the beginning of a third period in Murphy’s work. Here Murphy returns to suggestion of modeling and perspective visible in photographs his first three paintings (Figs. 7-9).  He continues, however, to use simultaneity - to paint various points of perspective at one time - like he had done in Watch and Razor (Figs. 1-2).  Doves also represents a new palette for Murphy - soft cool blues and grays complimented with beiges and browns.  His iconography includes an organic subject for the first time - the dove - but she is painted flatly in two-dimensions.  Murphy's exquisite drafting skills are evident in the carefully modeled architectural shapes, columns, pilasters, and molding profiles that define the various spaces on the canvas.  His tendency to divide the canvas right down the middle like in Razor persists here, but our viewpoint has changed – we are no longer looking down upon objects like in Razor and Watch – we have the beginning of a sense that we are looking straight on at some of these elements.

Murphy’s final contemporaneous exhibit was the Salon des Independants in February 1926.  He planned to exhibit two paintings, Still Life (Nature Morte) (a retitled Razor), and Laboratory. However, it seems on the way hanging the show, Laboratory was damaged and never shown (Rothschild 63). Laboratory has been lost and no photographs of it exist. Newspaper coverage of the 1926 Salon doesn’t mention Razor, perhaps because it had been shown just months before.

During 1926, Murphy painted another work that went missing over the years.  Roulement a Billes (Ball Bearings) must have represented the interest in ball bearings as an industrial aesthetic in art and architecture during this time period.  Murphy and numerous sources mention he and Sara’s white grand piano on which rotated a large ball bearing that he had had mounted as a sculpture (Murphy 61).

In late 1926 and into the next year, 1927, Murphy painted two more works, Bibliotheque (Library) (Fig. 4) and Cocktail (Fig. 5).  Like both Razor and Watch, both paintings’ iconography include references to his father. Bibliotheque hadn’t been located by the 1960 Dallas exhibition, so was first shown to any audience in the MOMA exhibit in 1974.  It was found rolled up in a garage.  Cocktail was exhibited for the first time in the Dallas exhibition (Rothschild 64).

Bibliotheque (Fig. 4), at six feet tall, is a large Murphy painting in this third style. As he had done in Dove, he uses architectural elements to divide the space – but in this painting, some of the dividing elements are simply flat bands of color, foretelling his final style.  The painting includes modeling and some nods to linear perspective, particularly in the arch behind the bust.  Again, we see a dividing element in the center of the painting vertically.  His palette is cool and more varied than it has been in previous existing works, with various cool browns, blues, grays, and greens.  He's chosen to represent the bust in pure black and white rather than with a gray scale modeling.  We notice that the picture is no longer simply a series of shapes on a background like in Razor – rather, this is a setting the artist invites us into despite the painting not providing completely logical perspective.  Doves and Bibliotheque would make a wonderful pair of paintings viewed together like bookends.

Murphy’s final three paintings reveal a final style phase including a new interest in organic form iconography.  In Cocktail (Fig. 5), 1927, dividing elements are no longer realistically rendered architectural elements, instead, just thick lines of flat color now.  He maintains some modeling and nods to three dimensions, particularly in the cocktail shaker and the cigars.  Other shapes are flat color or silhouetted shapes.  Here, Murphy used interesting repetition - the receding martini glasses (showing an understanding of diminution of scale and atmospheric perspective) and the lined-up cigars.  The subject matter here is pure North Americana - likely Cuban cigars and the mixed drink – an American invention.  His painting style is again transitional - combining elements of Doves and Bibliotheque with what we'll see in his final two paintings. MacAgy writes about “the tight order of the composition and the painstaking work required to paint the trompe l’oeil cigar box and tax label.  A slow worker, Murphy took four months to complete details of the cigar box cover which, along with assorted bar accessories, is part of Cocktail” (57).

Portrait (Fig. 10), completed in 1928, was also never exhibited.  Murphy presented it as a gift to his friend from Ballet Russes, Vladimir Orloff, who displayed it in his cabin in Saint Tropez, which was unfortunately destroyed in WWII (Rubin 42).  Like the lemon in Cocktail and the doves from his previous painting, Portrait contains organic shapes – the only one of Murphy’s works with any human elements. The eye and the lips are rendered realistically with modeling although they are stylized.  While we can't see the colors Murphy used, we can see that his division of space is now completely done with flat, thick paint lines.  We have a bird’s-eye view again here, with the only nod to perspective being his use of overlapping. In Portrait, Murphy doesn’t utilize that strong central vertical line found in many of his paintings.

The final painting of Gerald Murphy’s career is Wasp and Pear (Fig. 6).  Completed in 1929, this painting also had not been exhibited until Dallas.  In fact, this is the painting that Douglas MacAgy saw hanging in the Murphys’ home when a mutual friend introduced them.  The introduction lead to MacAgy’s inclusion of Murphy’s work in the 1960 Dallas show.  Murphy considered Wasp and Pear “probably the best” of his pictures (Rubin 42). He divides the canvas with solid lines of varying thickness and color while he places his subjects on top of the divisions.  There are only a few references to depth:  foreground objects overlap one another, the upright dissected pear appears to cast a partial shadow, the honeycomb appears to be confined by the space surrounding it.  A fresh and beautiful palette of greens, browns, golds and blues are appropriate for the subjects.  Murphy depicts an oversized stylized fly lighting on a pear and includes another cut pear, a leaf, and a detail of the fly anatomy in the foreground. 

Tragically, in 1929, Gerald and Sara’s middle child, Patrick, became ill with tuberculosis.  With this event, Gerald ended his painting career.  At the time, a long stay in a sanatorium was the only treatment for tuberculosis and Patrick’s convalescence became Gerald’s only concern.  For two years in a Swiss sanatorium, Gerald didn’t leave Patrick’s side.  By the time Patrick was well enough to be released, the stock market crash and Great Depression had crippled America, Gerald’s father had died, and the family business was threatened with bankruptcy.  Gerald moved his family back to New York to try to save the family business.  In 1935, the Murphy’s oldest son, Baoth, suddenly contracted spinal meningitis at boarding school and died at age 16.  Within two years, Patrick too was dead from tuberculosis, also at age 16.  Gerald spent the next 25 years turning the family business around and retired in 1956 at the age of 68.  He never painted again. He had never been exhibited in America until the 1960 show mounted by Douglas MacAgy at the fledgling Dallas Museum for Contemporary Art.  Gerald died in 1964 at the age of 72. 

William Rubin, who wrote the catalog for the 1974 MOMA show, notes, “Douglas MacAgy…. in 1960 showed five of the six Murphy paintings that have survived in a group exhibition entitled “American Genius in Review” at the Dallas Museum of Contemporary Arts… It is to MacAgy’s great credit that through him the American public was first made aware of this group of pictures” (14). Rothschild seconds that notion, “The Dallas exhibition, organized by Douglas MacAgy in 1960, and MacAgy’s 1963 essay on Murphy in Art in America, brought the work back in to focus… and also brought it to the attention of some very influential people” (8).

In a letter to MacAgy shortly before his death, Murphy wrote:

There is some-thing [sic] very reassuring (in a disorderly world) about knowing that there exists a catalyst-mentor who discovers and reveals that one had builded [sic] better than he knew.… Most certainly you have been the kinetic force in the exhumation of those few canvases of mine.  Where will it all end? (Murphy 63)

Murphy seemed truly surprised and touched by the attention.

Recognition of Murphy’s short career has not ended.  Since his death, Murphy has had two more solo shows (MOMA 1974 and Brooklyn Museum 2008) and his work has been a part of numerous major and international exhibits on American art of the 1920s.  In 2013, the United States Post Office issued a block of commemorative stamps entitled Modern Art in America: 1913 – 1931 (Fig. 10).  Murphy’s Razor was one of the twelve paintings selected to represent this period, along with Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, works by Stuart Davis, Georgia O’Keefe, John Marin, Man Ray, and 6 others.   This group of artists represents amazing company for a man who painted for only seven years and completed just fourteen canvases.  It seems that Gerald Murphy’s work has a permanent place in the work of American artists in the 1920s.

Appendix A

The six existing paintings of Gerald Murphy presented chronologically.

Figure 1. Razor, 1924

Oil on canvas, 32 X 36 in.

Dallas Museum of Art

 

Figure 2. Watch, 1925

Oil on canvas, 78 X 78 in.

Dallas Museum of Art

 

Figure 3. Doves, 1925

Oil on canvas, 49 x 36 in.

Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis

 

Figure 4. Bibliotheque, 1926-27

Oil on canvas, 73 x 53 in.

Yale University Art Gallery

 

Figure 5. Cocktail, 1927

Oil on canvas, 29 x 30 in.

Whitney Museum of American Art 

 

Figure 6. Wasp and Pear, 1929

Oil on canvas, 37 x 39 in.

The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Appendix B

Photographs of lost and destroyed Murphy paintings presented chronologically.

Figure 7. Pressure (Engine Room), 1922

44 x 60 in. (lost)

 

Figure 8. Turbines, 1922

(lost)

Figure 9. Boatdeck, 1923 (installation photo at the Salon des Independants, 1924)

18 x 12 feet (lost)

 

Figure 10. Portrait, 1928

32 x 32 in. (destroyed)

Appendix C

Recent Murphy critical attention by the United States Post Office.

Figure 10. Modern Art in America: 1913-1931 Stamps

2013, United States Postal Service

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