Gerald Murphy


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Painter. Also a businessman. Reflecting their creator's stylish, playful, and generous character, his innovative 1920s paintings reflect the cosmopolitan jazz age in spirit but find few similarities with art styles of the period. Incorporating depictions of everyday objects into large abstract designs, these works prefigure important aspects of pop art. Widely known during those same years among artists and writers in Paris and the south of France, Murphy personified the era's glamorous chic, as chronicled in Calvin Tomkins's vignette, Living Well Is the Best Revenge (1962). Murphy and his wife also inspired the central couple in F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night. Gerald Cleary Murphy was born in Boston but grew up in New York. After graduating in 1912 from Yale University, he studied landscape architecture at Harvard for two years before relocating to Paris in 1921. There he soon settled comfortably into the clever and creative society idealized in the historical romance of that era. Perhaps to his own surprise, Murphy was so overwhelmed by the experience of seeing work by Picasso, Georges Braque, and Juan Gris that he decided to become a painter. He studied briefly with Russian emigré painter Natalia Goncharova before setting his own course. Between 1922 and the end of the decade, Murphy completed his entire life's work as an artist: ten major canvases, of which seven survive. (Two of the lost paintings are known in photographs.) An extremely slow and meticulous worker, he astonished Paris with his detailed renditions of ordinary objects set within abstracted, cubist compositions. Razor (Dallas Museum of Art, 1924) features a safety razor, a fountain pen, and a matchbox, all enormously enlarged and painted in a hard-edge technique. The audacious Boatdeck, Cunarder (1923, now lost) depicted smokestacks and air vents in a manner related to precisionism. However, at 18 × 12 feet, this painting addressed problems of scale that were to beguile pop artists. Later, Murphy's work inched toward more complex and unsettling effects. Wasp and Pear (Museum of Modern Art, 1927) presents a flat assemblage of elements including exterior and interior views of a pear, along with a grotesquely enlarged wasp. Parts of the insect are simplified while others are blown up in textbook-style detail. Murphy's artistic career ended along with the twenties, when family problems claimed his attention. Following three years in Switzerland, he returned to New York. Murphy worked in his family's Mark Cross luxury leather goods business until he retired in 1956. Before his death on eastern Long Island, at his vacation home in Southampton, he lived to see the beginning of a revival of interest in his small but piquant contribution to the history of art.

Subjects: Art.

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