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Artist: Gerald Murphy, American, 1888 - 1964
Medium:Oil on canvas
Dimensions: Canvas dimensions: 32 1/16 x 36 1/2 in. (81.44 x 92.71 cm) Framed dimensions: 34 x 38 in. (86.36 x 96.52 cm)
Credit Line: Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, gift of the artist
Object Number: 1963.74.FA
Gerald Murphy’s Razor presents a still life of consumer products one might associate with the modern American man of the twenties: a safety razor, a fountain pen, and a matchbox. Murphy’s graphic and simplified style and subject reflect the rise in commerce and advertising during the decade. The large scale of the objects and the bold graphics even recall billboard advertisements.
The products Murphy presents in Razor had personal resonance. The specific pen was designed by Mark Cross, a company owned by the Murphy family, and Murphy developed the prototype for the safety razor. Many artists responded to the new consumerist culture of the 1920s; Murphy embraced it by combining the commercial and fine arts.
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 attended Yale University. 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.
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.
In Paris 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 European artists such as Pablo Picasso and Juan Gris. Inspired after seeing the work of these and other artists, Murphy painted scenery for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes before moving on to paint on canvases. Murphy first displayed his work at the 1923 Salon des Independents, an important Parisian avant-garde art exhibition.
Gerald and Sara Murphy later bought a home in the French Riviera, where they hosted lavish parties for many of the most important European and American intellectuals, writers, and artists. This home, known as Villa America, was immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, a fictionalized account of life in the French Riviera.
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. In 1960 the Dallas Museum for Contemporary Arts (later the Dallas Museum of Art) organized an exhibition of the work of American modernist artists. This show was Murphy’s first exhibition in America and, in gratitude, Murphy offered the museum his paintings Razor and Watch. These are two of only eight surviving paintings by Murphy.
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.
During their time in France during the 1920s, Gerald and Sara Murphy met and befriended many important European and American artists. Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris, Fernand Léger, Man Ray, and many others were regular dinner party guests of the Murphys.
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, Pablo Picasso, and Juan 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.’“ When Murphy began displaying his own work, artists similarly expressed their admiration for him. Fernand Léger announced that Murphy was the only American painter in Paris (meaning the only one of any importance).
The term “Lost Generation,” originally attributed to Gertrude Stein, has been used to describe the group of American writers centered in Paris during the 1920s who came of age during World War I. This group included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Archibald MacLeish, and others.
During their time in Paris and later in the French Riviera, Gerald and Sara Murphy became close friends with many of these writers, and were famously used as models for characters in several writings. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel Tender Is the Night, for instance, 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.
Originally pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques in the first decade of the 20th century, cubism was an avant-garde artistic movement inspired partly by the abstracted styles of African art and the late work of Paul Cézanne. Cubist painting is largely characterized by its tendency to fracture its subjects, geometricize them, and reassemble them on a canvas showing multiple viewpoints simultaneously. In Razor Murphy reflects cubist elements by flattening the subjects of his still life into planar, geometric shapes existing in a two-dimensional space.
Under the administration of President Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929), the United States experienced significant commercial and economic growth. Coolidge’s policies cut federal taxes, reduced the national debt, and supported businesses and national consumption. In short, the United States was a prosperous nation in the decade before the Stock Market Crash of 1929.
During the twenties, automobiles and radios were the top-selling consumer products. Both products connected the country’s various regions; the automobile made it possible for the public to travel easily between cities and towns, while the radio disseminated information and opportunities to the masses. The popularity of these products spurred the creation and spread of chain stores across the country. Accessible by car and effectively marketed via radio advertisements, these stores flourished. Brands of products available at chain stores became popular across all American households.
Gerald Murphy’s family benefited from the rise in consumerism with their luxury goods company Mark Cross. Because of his family’s business, Murphy took personal interest in popular consumer products of the time, and presents some of those products in Razor. Other artists, such as Stuart Davis, incorporated consumer products and popular brands into their art, reflecting the growth of consumerism during the Coolidge era.
1. Think about shapes and layers as you look at Razor. What shapes do you recognize? Imagine this painting as a collage of various shapes. What shapes are layered on top of one another?
2. Consider the scale of the objects in Razor. Imagine that Murphy painted the objects their actual size. How would this change the impact of the painting?
3. Describe Murphy’s painting style. Commerce and advertising were on the rise during the 1920s. What qualities of this painting look like an advertisement?
4. Murphy’s Razor presents consumer products of the 1920s that represented the “modern American man.” What popular products today might represent the “modern American man” of 2012? What popular products today might represent the “modern American woman”?
1. Compare Razor to Gerald Murphy’s painting Watch, also in the DMA’s collection. How are they similar in style, subject matter, or technique? How are they different?
2. Compose and draw a still life with popular present-day consumer products. What products did you choose, and why did you choose them? How will you arrange and present these products in your still life?
3. Look closely at Razor. How would you describe it? Think about the composition, objects represented, title, scale, colors, line quality, etc. Create a list of words and ideas that you can associate with Razor. Look at your list of words and come up with another title for this work of art. Discuss your title choice with a classmate.
4. Sara and Gerald Murphy inspired others by their life choices, their joy, their love of their children, and their passion for living the “good life,” which included lots of friends, art, music, theater, dressing up, and play. Write an essay on one of the following topics:
- What does living the “good life” mean to you? Emphasize a life rich in areas other than material goods and wealth. How can you be “rich” beyond money?
- How has someone you know and admire created a “good life”?
Carbone, Teresa. Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties. New York: Skira Rizzoli; Brooklyn: Brooklyn Museum, 2011.
Donnelly, Honoria Murphy. Sara & Gerald: Villa America and After. New York: Times Books, 1982.
Pitman, Bonnie, ed. Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2012.
Rubin, William Stanley. The Paintings of Gerald Murphy. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1974.
Sariaslan, Lora. “Gerald Murphy in Dallas.” In Dallas Museum of Art: 100 Years. Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2003.
Stewart, Rick. Villa America/An American Painter in Paris: Gerald Murphy. Dallas : Dallas Museum of Art, 1986.
Tomkins, Calvin. Living Well Is the Best Revenge. New York: Viking Press, 1971.
Tomkins, Calvin. Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy. Berkeley: University of California Press; Williamstown, MA: Williams College Museum of Art, 2007.
Books for Students:
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. Tender Is the Night. New York: Scribner, 1934.
Hemingway, Ernest. A Moveable Feast. New York : Charles Scribner's Sons, 1964.
Vaill, Amanda. Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1998.
This is a recent review of an exhibition containing work by Gerald Murphy.
This article was the basis for the book Living Well Is the Best Revenge, about the Murphys.
This resource provides Library of Congress source materials related to consumerism in the 1920s.
This resource provides lesson plans and resources for teaching about America during the 1920s.
This website explores a variety of aspects of the 1920s through text, photos, and videos.
Create a montage with popular photos from the Jazz Age.