Artists & Designers
Gerald Murphy (1888-1964)
Gerald Murphy was born in 1888 in Boston. His father was the owner of the Mark Cross company—a successful luxury goods store—and he tried, unsuccessfully, to interest Gerald in the family business.
Murphy went to college at Yale where he was widely revered by his fellow classmates. He was elected into the top fraternity, tapped for Skull and Bones (a secret collegiate society), made manager of the glee club and chairman of the dance committee, and voted best dressed man in the class of 1911. However, Murphy later claimed the competitive atmosphere of Yale was stifling. “I was very unhappy there,” he said. “You always felt that you were expected to make good in some form of extracurricular activity, and there was such constant pressure on you that you couldn’t make a stand against it—I couldn’t, anyway.”
In 1915, after graduating from college, Gerald met and married Sara Wiborg, the daughter of an Illinois shipping magnate. The Murphys soon grew disaffected with the political and social atmosphere in America during Prohibition. Gerald Murphy said of it, “You had the feeling that the bluenoses were in the saddle over here, and that a government that could pass the Eighteenth Amendment could, and probably would, do a lot of other things to make life in the States as stuffy and bigoted as possible.” Compounding their problems, Gerald and Sara Murphy’s parents disapproved of their marriage. Like many other Americans at this time, the Murphys decided to move to France.
After arriving in Paris in 1921, the Murphys fell in with a group of expatriate American writers who have come to be known as the “Lost Generation.” This group was closely associated with a number of visual artists such as Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, and Man Ray. Though Gerald Murphy had always expressed an interest in art, he first decided to start painting after one of his walks in Paris brought him to the window of the Rosenberg Gallery. It was there that he saw, for the first time, paintings by Georges Braque, Picasso, and Gris. Murphy said of the experience, “I was astounded. My reaction to the color and form was immediate; to me there was something in these paintings that was instantly sympathetic and comprehensible and fresh and new. I said to Sara, ‘If that’s painting, it’s what I want to do.’" Murphy pursued his own art training and became a student of Natalia Goncharova, a Russian artist who had come to Paris with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He first displayed his work at the 1923 Salon des Indépendents, an important Parisian avant-garde art exhibition. Murphy painted slowly, producing only a small number of works but received complimentary reviews from his contemporaries. Léger announced that Murphy was the only American painter in Paris (meaning the only one of any importance).
During their time in Paris and Villa America (the name of their home in the French Riviera), Gerald and Sara Murphy hosted lavish parties for many of the most important European and American intellectuals, writers, and artists. The couple was famously used as models for characters in several writings. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night, a fictionalized account of life in the wealthy coastal region, uses the Murphys as the inspiration for his main characters, Dick and Nicole Diver; Archibald MacLeish based the main characters of his Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B. on Gerald and Sara Murphy; and the Murphys play significant roles in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.
By 1929 Gerald Murphy’s attention was increasingly taken up by his two young sons, Patrick and Baoth, both of whom grew ill and died within two years of each other of unrelated illnesses. At this time, he also began running his father’s struggling company, Mark Cross. Together, the pressures of family and work caused him to stop painting altogether.
Murphy made a total of fourteen paintings during his brief painting career. Critics rediscovered him only in 1960, after his work was included in the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts' group exhibition, American Genius in Review: I (May 11-June 19, 1960). _Murphy died in East Hampton in 1964. Since then, several biographies, including Calvin Tompkins’ _Living Well Is the Best Revenge, have shed light on his time in France and his artistic legacy.
- "Gerald Murphy, Watch," DMA Connect, Dallas Museum of Art, 2012.
- "Gerald Murphy, Razor," DMA Connect, Dallas Museum of Art, 2012.
- Heather MacDonald, DMA Label copy (1963.75.FA), October 2009.
- Bonnie Pitman, ed., Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012), 248.
- Gerald Murphy and Archibald MacLeish
Read about Murphy's friendship with MacLeish on Tom Jungerberg's DMAcanvas blog post (May 17, 2011).
- Literary Connections to the DMA Collection
Check out Shannon Karol's bibliophile friendly post for DMAcanvas (January 14, 2010).
- Gerald Murphy: 7 Years as a Painter
Take a look at the biography and images available on Kent Boyer's Doorknob Studio site (2013).
- V.I.B. Visit to the DMA
A blog post in honor of a visit to the DMA by Murphy's 11-month-old, great godson.