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 Gerald Murphy  (1888 - 1964)

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Lived/Active: Massachusetts      Known for: abstract painting

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Ad Code: 3
Gerald Murphy
from Auction House Records.
Library (Bibliotheque)
© Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY See Details
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A prominent figure and multi-talented artist of the Lost Generation of Avant-Garde Americans in Paris in the 1920s, Gerald Murphy was known for painting everyday objects in flat, un-modulated colors.  He later said that he was "nourished on Leger's Picasso's, Braque's and Gris' abstractions."  He worked painstakingly, producing only a handful of finished works in the decade of the 1920s.

Murphy, a tall, attractive, redheaded man, was from a wealthy family and was the heir to the Mark Cross leather fortune.  He graduated from Yale University in 1912, along with his future wife, Sara Wiborg, the daughter of a millionaire manufacturer of printing ink.  Seeking to be independent from family pressures, the Murphys were among the first young Americans to go abroad and "fully immerse themselves in the active early Twentieth Century culture of Paris." (Antiques).  Underscoring Murphy's disdain for his family position, he was quoted as referring to his family business as a "monument to the useless." (Meade, 171)

The Murphys, described as an ideal couple who knew how to live with exceptional style and grace", (Meade 171) became the center of a brilliant circle of American expatriates and Europeans.  They lived both in Paris and in a home they called Villa America in Cap d'Antibes in the south of France.  He fostered creative friendships with many leading figures of that time including Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos, Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Fernand Leger, Charles Demuth, the Scott Fitzgeralds, and Archibald MacLeish.  He and his wife Sara Wiborg, who had three children, were the real-life models for the main characters of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, Tender is the Night, which was dedicated to the Murphys. 

Gerald Murphy became a painter of considerable gifts, but only began studying art in 1921 at age 33 after a career in business and a commitment to landscape architecture.   Among his painting teachers was Natalia Goncharova, a Russian abstract painter who insisted that her students could commit nothing to canvas that resembled reality.  He was also inspired by Juan Gris, Georges Braque and Fernand Leger, and under these influences set aside his pursuit of landscape architecture for modernist, abstract painting.  In exhibitions, he received praise for his work, and he also painted sets for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russe.

However, in 1929 when his son, Patrick, was stricken with tuberculosis that he had caught from a chauffeur the family had used in Hollywood, Villa America became a place of great tension, and then was dismantled for the family's move to the Swiss Alps.   Murphy quit painting, and he had produced only about a dozen meticulously crafted assemblages and a few watercolors.  He never sold any of them, and they were forgotten until the 1950s when they were rediscovered. 

A posthumous exhibit was held at the New York Museum of Modern Art and in 1995 at the Whitney Museum.  The Whitney bought one of his assemblages, Cocktail, from that exhibit and paid more than one million dollars.

In 2006, Yale University Art Gallery acquired his work Bibliotheque, one of only seven paintings known to survive at this time out of a total of fourteen.  This piece, inspired by the purist philosophy of Amedee Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, reflects a desire to create art that is timeless and classical and divorced from contemporary social references.

Sources include:
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
"Yale University Art Gallery Acquires Rare Painting by Gerald Murphy", Antiques and The Arts Weekly, March 10, 2006, p. 68
Marion Meade, Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This?

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