J. Francis Murphy
Raised in extreme poverty, first in Oswego, New York, and then in Chicago, Murphy took an approach to painting, if not life itself, that was “sparing.” The young artist learned quickly after a youthful trip to Keene Valley in the company of many pure Hudson River School artists that he did not have the eye—nor the training—for sweeping, detailed panoramic mountain vistas. His skills lay in more intimate suggestions and simplifications of nature’s landscapes. The influence of Thoreau’s writing and Inness’ painting suited his temperament and skill perfectly; he was a natural tonalist painter. Murphy left Chicago in 1875, an abandon- ment for which his three sisters never forgave him, and settled into New York, eventually sharing quarters above a bakery shop with Dennis Bunker and Bruce Crane. Their accommodations were dubbed, without affection, “cockroach hall.” I found an immediate affinity for Murphy’s work, especially earlier pieces, and the first example my father acquired from Ken Lux in 1968 is extraordi- nary in its simplicity. Entitled Early Snow, it is a rare watercolor dated 1884 with exhibition labels from 1885 at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, quite obviously a painting of which Murphy was proud. Chapellier Gallery was the source of a 1901 classic oil landscape with a simplified composition and golden, red, and yellow coloration. Like many artists of the period, Murphy was a gifted watercolorist but seemed to abandon the medium about 1890, probably because oils were taken more seriously and sold for higher prices. Yet I almost prefer the light, elegant, and exceptionally poetic quality of his (and other tonalists’) watercolors, which led me to the third example, purchased in 1996 from Post Road Antiques. J. Francis Murphy and artists like him are unlikely ever to knock you out of your seat, but the best of their work will make you feel something, will make you respond to the bare basics of the natural landscape, which is probably exactly what they wanted to accomplish.