John Francis Murphy ( American, 1853 - 1921 )



Late Afternoon

Oil on Canvas, Signed ( l.l. ) "John Francis Murphy 93"

8" x 12" / 13" x 17" Framed ( Quality Reproduction Frame )


John Francis Murphy is increasingly recognized today as one of the leading American Tonalist painters of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Over a productive career of some fifty years, he developed a highly individual aesthetic that was notable for its expressive and poetic nuance. His art attracted a wide following, and was avidly collected by individuals and museums both during his lifetime and in the period following his death.

Murphy was born in Oswego, New York, near Lake Ontario. With his family he moved to Chicago in 1868, where his father was employed in the shipping industry. In Chicago, Murphy began working as a scene painter in a local theatre and was quickly promoted to lead his co-workers. Largely self-taught, his only training consisted of a few classes at the Chicago Academy of Design. There he became friends with Emil Carlsen and Theodore Robinson, and in 1873, Academy members elected him an Associate; a few weeks later, he became an Academician.

That same year, through private art lessons and sales of his work, Murphy was able to finance a three-month sketching trip to the Adirondack Mountains. He spent most of this time in Keene Valley in Essex County, where he met Winslow Homer. With so many other young painters during this period, Murphy was initially drawn to the descriptive naturalism of the Hudson River school artists. He particularly admired the pictures of William Hart, and his early works suggest the influence of that older painter.

Frustrated with Chicago and the public's tepid support for the visual arts, Murphy moved to New York in 1875. The National Academy of Design accepted one of his paintings for its annual exhibition in 1876. Financial circumstances soon forced the artist to move to Denmark, New Jersey, where he boarded with family friends from Chicago in exchange for helping on their farm. In the following year, Murphy returned to New York and rented a studio over the Vienna Bakery on Broadway. While he managed to sell an occasional picture, he supported himself primarily through illustration work. He joined the Salmagundi Club in 1878 and began to exhibit more widely.

The following year the American Water Color Society accepted one of Murphy's watercolors for exhibition, and he was elected a member of the Society in 1880. By this time Murphy had adopted a less descriptive and more suggestive style of painting that placed greater emphasis upon his emotional response to nature rather than simply delineating its visible forms. He started to blur the edges of natural forms and moderate strong contrasts of light and dark, seeking tonal harmonies in a limited range of hues. Tonalist painters like Alexander Wyant and George Inness strongly influenced his new style while his reflections on nature were increasingly informed by the writings of Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. As wispy, arboreal forms and green and pink tonalities appeared in his canvases, critical reviews began to describe Murphy as "the American Corot." His paintings more readily found buyers, and he became friends with such important artists as Elihu Vedder, George Fuller, and Albert Pinkham Ryder.

In 1883 Murphy married a fellow painter, Adah Clifford Smith, and the couple soon moved to New York's Hotel Chelsea. Two years later Murphy won the Second Hallgarten Prize at the National Academy for his painting Tints of a Vanished Past (1885; private collection). This prestigious award was the first in a long succession of prizes and distinctions that the artist would receive during his lifetime, including the Gold Medal of Honor (1887; American Art Association), the Webb Prize (1887; Society of American Artists), the William T. Evans Prize (American Water Color Society), the Gold Medal (1899; Philadelphia Art Club), and the George Inness Medal (1910; National Academy of Design), to name just a few. That same year the National Academy elected him an Associate, and he became a full Academician just two years later.

In 1886 Murphy and his wife made their first trip to Europe. They visited Paris and toured France and lived for six months in the village of Montigny. After returning to America, they purchased land in Arkville in the Catskill Mountains and built a house and studio. During the next three decades Murphy typically lived in Arkville for eight months of the year and then returned to the Hotel Chelsea each winter to paint and exhibit his work. His paintings prior to 1900, many of them twilight scenes, increasingly reflected the intimate, brooding style of the French Barbizon artists. After 1900, Murphy began to explore the abstract qualities of space in bold compositions that feature starkly empty, open fields, often in a higher color key with a more limited range of hues. These canvases, considered by many critics to be his finest works, feature perhaps his most suggestive imagery and accentuate the sensuous beauty of the painted surface itself.

During these final years Murphy achieved his greatest commercial success, with dealers and collectors. He and his wife returned to Europe in 1906 and visited England, Scotland, and Ireland. Three years later they traveled back to England and Scotland and toured Norway. Otherwise the couple largely continued their daily routines and seasonal residences in New York and Arkville until Murphy's death in 1921.

Examples of John Francis Murphy's painting can be found in numerous private collections as well as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Freer Gallery, Washington, D.C.; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Detroit Institute of Art; the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio; the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut; the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts; and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.