John Francis Murphy (1853-1921)
John Francis Murphy (1853-1921)
“The effects of landscape that J. Francis Murphy loves to paint may not be called ‘striking,’…Rather are they [subtle] and tender, and their charm grows greater on the spectator the longer he looks. Poetic in feeling and synthetically handled, but preserving the right amount of detail, they are among the choicest products of the flourishing epoch in American landscape-painting.”
 American Paintings Belonging to William T. Evans, exhibition and sale catalogue (New York: American Art Association, 1900), pp. 58-59.
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By the time of his sudden passing from heart failure in 1921, John Francis Murphy had risen from humble beginnings in upstate New York to become a highly-respected, and greatly mourned, member of the American art world. In a rare front page obituary published by American Art News, he was remembered for his ‘genial, kindly personality’ and for his distinctive approach to capturing the feeling of Nature on canvas.
Born in Oswego, New York, in 1853, Murphy moved with his family to Chicago in 1868 and during his teenage years found work painting scenery at R. M. Hooley’s Theatre. While he befriended students enrolled at what would become the Art Institute of Chicago, and accompanied them on sketching trips, Murphy was virtually self-taught and decided to move to New York in the fall of 1875. He launched his painting career one year later by exhibiting for the first time with the National Academy of Design and would eventually take part in nearly every Academy annual through 1921, winning the second Hallgarten Prize in 1885 and the Inness Gold Medal for landscape in 1910. Murphy would become a full National Academician in 1887, and also regularly exhibited both oils and watercolors with the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Boston Art Club, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Accolades continued to come his way, including the Webb Prize from the Society of American Artists in 1887, the William T. Evans Prize from the American Watercolor Society in 1894, and various medals and awards from World’s Fairs held in Chicago, San Francisco, Charleston and St. Louis. In addition to the National Academy, he joined many of the creative organizations of the time, including the American Watercolor Society, the Lotos Club and the Salmagundi Club.
After about 1885, Murphy worked less from direct observation and more from memory, concentrating on, in the words of Charles L. Buchanan, a contemporaneous critic and Murphy enthusiast, “nature’s brooding periods, her aloofness from change and stress.” Buchanan explained how the artist was both painter and naturalist, yet spent three seasons of the year focused on the latter, communing with the landscape surrounding his country home in the Catskills at Arkville, New York, before finally putting brush to canvas after returning to the city for winter.
Murphy synthesized his own personal style from the limited palette typical of Tonalism, the rough surface textures of Impressionism, and an absorption in the expressive possibilities of Nature. Although a few critics failed to appreciate his masterfully understated approach to his subject and grumbled about the seeming monotony of his landscapes while other painters found fame and fortune through more experimental or commercial motifs, many others recognized him as the clear successor of George Inness and Alexander Wyant. Fellow artists and prominent collectors agreed, as notables such as William T. Evans, Frederick S. Gibbs and George A. Hearn eagerly purchased his work, and museums including the Detroit Institute of the Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York acquired paintings during Murphy’s lifetime for their permanent collections. Today his work can also be found in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, among several other institutions.