John Francis Murphy — The Landscape Within

John Francis Murphy was called “American Corot” during his lifetime, but it is a misnomer.  Murphy did favor a more spontaneous, loose-controlled technique, but he tackled the American rural scenes with more American protestant sincerity than French sensibility. Murphy’s works can probably be more comprehensive when compared with those by his fellow artist Bruce Crane, with whom he painted the declined New England and Hudson River area in the wake of industrialization with an indefinite depth of barbarism and a variety of hues of warmth and nostalgia.

An Autumn Landscape by John Francis Murphy
An Autumn Landscape by J. Francis Murphy

An Autumn landscape was quintessentially Murphy-atmospheric. The twilight dark-toned landscape formula was executed in large numbers with baroque frames and shadow boxes to accommodate the demands of collectors in the gilded age.

Though such a style recalls French Barbizon, it is a genuine American expressiveness. The breakthrough of the French Barbizon painter was its use of collapsible tin paint tubes for the first time in history, thus abandoning formalism toward realism. However, Murphy has insisted all his paintings were merely compositions, not a true representation of the locale. Other American tonalism adopted a similar tenet: Artistic vision is more worthy to pursue than loyal reproduction. Jarvis McEntee even titled one of his paintings as “An Autumn Memory”.

Both antebellum French Barbizon school and post-war American painters have found civilized landscapes peculiar yet intimate compared to saved and untamed.  Yet fundamentally their views of humanized nature were far apart. The elegance and poetry of mundane European peasantry life could not impress the New Englanders who upheld their Puritanic ethic and believed in labor as salvation and obligation, nothing noble or monumental.  Thus the habitation and activity that were an integral part of French Barbizon paintings became more or less a backdrop in paintings by Murphy and his fellows. The pastoral idealism was transformed from becoming to being, a motionless state to emphasize spareness and expansiveness.

It is not surprising to find such a gap between French and American Barbizon paintings with regard to their attitudes toward humane nature. For the French, Fontainebleau Forest represented what nature is in her untamed beauty. The peasantry life outside the forest was harmonious and gracious. Yet four decades later, American painters found New England had largely been abandoned and nature was reclaiming her territory. The forlorn stumps, crumbled stone walls, and other traces were evidence of unsettling social upheaval, breaking away from self-sustained rural harmony. Bruce Crane, in his acclaimed New England autumnal or wintery landscapes, expressed his yearning to restore such a balance (at least spiritually), a legacy of the colonial time. Similarly, the cows painted in the background almost indistinguishably in Murphy’s painting were a symbol of waning habitation in Northeast America. Ironically, American Barbizon and Tonalism painters gained their social prestige and financial support from those baron robbers who were the cause of the lamented rural landscape.

A Countryside Landscape by J. Francis Murphy
A Countryside Landscape by John Francis Murphy

A Countryside Landscape by J. Francis Murphy, on the other hand, was very un-Barbizon.  From May 1886 to November of the same year, the Murphys spent six months in Europe including London, Paris, and Amsterdam. That painting was probably painted after he went back to Arkville the next Spring. Although still a cloudy, broody scene, it does have an airy freshness and silvery Corot-like subtle sensibility.  Probably the glistering summer sunlight from Montigny had restrained in Arkville, NY, but an intangible grayness imbued the early Summer vibrancy a little bit somber from his interaction with the Hague School. Seldom has Murphy produced a more calming and serene landscape even though one can still sense such beauty lies on the transient side.

Doyle Auctions is offering a painting by J. Francis Murphy in its upcoming “Fine Furniture, Decorations, and Paintings” auction (Sale 09FD01) on Jan. 14, 2009. The lot number is  Lot 60. The painting is  18 x 23 3/4 inches and painted on a wood panel. The signature is at the lower right. A close examination shows there are three splits on the wood panel and two noticeable paint losses. (See the painting from their website.) The estimated price is $2,000-4,000 which is fairly low compared to the auction records of similar-sized paintings by the artist. On the back of the panel, there were two dark areas indicating old labels which are missing. But a partial hand-written label says:

Tints of a Vanished Past/(name of his)/Prize Winning Painting/at N. Ac. of Design/1885.

Based on my knowledge, such a painting does exist which won the Second Hallgarten Prize from NA in 1885. But an old catalog (J. Francis Murphy: The Landscape Within, published by the Hudson River Museum in 1982) shows the award-winning painting features a house, stumps, fences, and a large tree in the front: It is oil on canvas (33″ by 30″).  Maybe the previous owner wrote the information down to enhance the profile of the artist since Murphy was not “rediscovered” until the 1970s.

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