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—who 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.
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.
Associations with Artists
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 Leger, Man Ray, and many others were regular dinner party guests of the Murphy’s.
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 in his life, 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. Ferdinand Léger announced that Murphy was the only American painter in Paris (meaning the only one of any importance).
Associations with Writers
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. The Murphys were famously used as models for characters in the writing of several of these friends. 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 Movable Feast.
In Watch, Murphy engages aspects of Cubism by overlapping the interior and exterior components of the watch and abstracting his subject matter into flat, geometric forms.
Originally pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braques in the first decade of the twentieth century, Cubism was an avant-garde artistic movement inspired partly by the abstracted styles of African art and the late work of Paul Cezanne. Cubist painting is largely characterized by its tendency to fracture its subjects, geometricize them, and reassemble them on a canvas showing multiple viewpoints simultaneously.
By the 1920s, Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity, first published in the 1910’s, invalidated Newton’s version of time as a uniform absolute. Because of this, many artists and writers developed a fascination with the subjective experience of time. In Watch, Murphy engages his own preoccupation with time. Murphy once expressed that he was “always struck by the mystery and depth of the interiors of a watch—its multiplicity, variety, and feeling of movement and man’s grasp at perpetuity.” Moreover, Murphy’s father designed the first wristwatch after a British infantry officer told him that the pocket watch he carried was too unwieldy for trench warfare.
For Gerald Murphy, this fascination with time was compounded by a personal interest in American manufactured consumer goods and gadgetry which extended into his other artwork and his life. One of Murphy’s other best known paintings, Razor, also took as its subject a common manufactured item.
1. How many circles can you find in this painting? Pretend that your finger is the pencil and the air in front of you, your sketchpad. Trace the circles that you see. List and describe other shapes that you see in the painting.
2. Two different watches inspired this painting: a gold pocket watch and a railroad watch. If you are not familiar with these types of watches, look them up on the internet. What parts of a watch do you recognize in the painting? What parts in the painting do not resemble a watch? How do these parts work together in the painting?
3. What does “perpetuity” mean and what might Gerald Murphy have meant when he described a watch as “man’s grasp at perpetuity”?
4. This painting is six feet by six feet. Why might Murphy have painted this in such a large scale? How might shrinking the scale of this painting influence the way we feel looking at it?
1. Compare Watch to Gerald Murphy’s painting The Razor, also in the DMA’s collection. How are they similar in style, subject matter, or technique? How are they different?
2. In a group, try to imitate the sound you might expect this watch to make if it were activated. Assign each person to a specific part of the painting or a specific gear.
3. This painting shows how effective different shades of the same color can be. Look for numerous shades of gray throughout the painting. How many shades can you find? Create a painting only using different shades of the same color.
4. Choose a technological device to examine closely. If you can take it apart, do so carefully, investigating the inside as well as the outside. What words, shapes, or colors could be used to describe or represent it? Create an original drawing, painting, or poem inspired by your investigation of this device.
5. In the 1920’s many artists were exploring the important role of time in their lives. For instance, in Archibald MacLeish’s poem “You, Andrew Marvell,” the poet describes the course of the sun over Europe. The poem’s title refers to English Metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell who’s most famous poem, “The Passionate Shepherd to his Love,” was a carpe diem poem, asserting the centrality of time over the affairs of lovers. Compare the notion of time in Murphy’s painting with that asserted by MacLeish’s poem.
6. 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” means to you? Emphasize a life rich in areas other than material goods and wealth. How can you be “rich” beyond money?
· Think of someone you know and admire who has made a “good life” for themselves.
American Genius in Review, No. 1. Dallas, Tex.: Dallas Museum of Contemporary Arts, 1960. Cat. no. 26.
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, 1997. Page 251.
Donnelly, Honoria Murphy. Sara & Gerald: Villa America and After. New York: Times Books, 1982. Page 142.
Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy. Berkeley: University of California Press; Williamstown, Mass.: Williams College Museum of Art, 2007.
Rubin, William Stanley. The Paintings of Gerald Murphy. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1974. Cover, pages 16, 31, and 35.
Sariaslan, Lora. “Gerald Murphy in Dallas.” Dallas Museum of Art: 100 Years. Dallas, 2003. Brochure #20.
Stewart, Rich. An American Painter in Paris: Gerald Murphy. Dallas, Tex.: Dallas Museum of Art, 1986. Plate 2, page 10.
Tomkins, Calvin. Living Well is the Best Revenge. New York: Viking Press, 1971. Page 141.
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