Stan Murphy (1922-2003)
Stan Murphy Called “Dean of Martha’s Vineyard Artists” by The Boston Globe, Stanley Murphy made a living painting portraits, landscapes and flowers on Martha’s Vineyard for more than 50 years. The way Murphy captured the essence of a person, the luminosity of a floral arrangement or the grandeur of the Vineyard through the seasons resonated with many people. Island people became art patrons and collectors because they valued Stan’s vision of their world.
Perhaps best known for his portraits, Stan Murphy painted not just a likeness but he captured the essence of the individual. Wealthy summer residents commissioned portraits of family members. Official portraits were also commissioned, a United States Supreme Court Justice (Abe Fortas), our country’s first black cabinet officer (Robert Weaver). Frequently the subject of his non-commissioned portraits were men who worked out of doors, fishermen and farmers. Typically a detailed penciled study would be done from life and used for the oil painting. At some point he stopped taking commissions and only painted people he was interested in painting. Often the sitter would get the study in exchange for being Stan’s subject. Similar to Chuck Close, Stan Murphy selected his subjects partly by a desire to get to know the person. The portrait of Menemsha fisherman, Jim Morgan is a good example of that. For over a half a century Murphy painted up-island landscapes and the men who worked the land and the sea. He essentially documented the transition of Martha’s Vineyard from a fishing and farming community to a community of second homes.
His landscapes were vistas of fields, woods and water capturing the wide variety of topography on the Vineyard. Frequently the paintings were of Island in winter when the contrast between snow covered fields or moor and water was the most stark. Spring landscapes with the blooms of daffodils, beach plum or fields of new grass were also frequently painted by Stan. Details such as the lichen growing on the stone walls which crisscross the landscape up-island were frequently included in his compositions. Taken as a body of work, in his landscapes he captured Island in all seasons.
While portraits and landscapes were a major focus of his efforts, Stan found that the small paintings of flowers were very salable. Echoing the Flemish floral paintings, Murphy’s delicate rendering of flowers were small jewels in their clarity are precisely painted. The ink bottle, vase or lusterware pitcher that held the flowers also were treated with care and finesse. Many of the floral pieces were paintings of the flower arrangements made by his wife, Polly, using her own garden for raw material of the arrangements, many of which were great creations in their own right.
During the 1950’s and 1960’s Stan’s oil paintings were fairly thick resulting in an impasto surface on most of the canvases. During the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Murphy experimented with acrylics but found the drying time too quick for his method of working. During that same time Stan was using very thin oils which came to be the media he liked the most and used frequently. Most of his later oil paintings have a very flat smooth surface with little build up of paint. Canvas and linen were his usual media in the first two decades of his career he frequently painted on wood panels from hollow core doors and on masonite panels during the last half of his painting life. Oil, casine, tempra, acrylic, crayon, pen, pencil, charcoal, markers, mosaic, etching and lithograph were the methods he used in his career, with oil and pencil most often employed.
Born in 1922 in St. Paul, Minnesota, moved to Buffalo, NY in 1932 and to Baltimore in 1934 where he lived until enlisting in the service in 1942. Murphy moved with his wife and first child to Martha’s Vineyard in 1948 where he lived until his death in 2003.
Attended Loyola College in Baltimore 1940, Maryland Institute of Fine and Practical Arts; Johns Hopkins 1941; 1942-1946 served in U.S. Army; enrolled in Art Students League, New York City, 1946-1948. His formal art training was incomplete and he was mainly a self taught portraitist.
While studying in post World War II New York City, the Artist was aware of the Abstract Expressionism movement but he rejected the modern nonrepresentational art form of post war New York and embraced Flemish representational art of the 1600’s. Among his favorites were Rembrandt, Bruegel, and Van Ruisdel. Thomas Hart Benton, a summer resident of the Vineyard, was a friend of Murphy’s, and theirs was a relationship of the older artist encouraging the younger. The same could be said about the relationship Stan had with Island artists Allen Whiting, Rez Williams and other aspiring artists; encouragement not emulation. Of the hundreds paintings he produced most are still in private hands. The only institution actively collecting his work is the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, formerly known as the Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society. Even while the artist was alive two galleries provided secondary markets for Stan’s work, the Grainery Gallery and Craven Gallery both on the Island and they remain active dealers of Murphy’s work. Collecting of Murphys was not confined to wealthy summer people, but included local tradesmen who bought his work for love of the images and a good value. Moderately priced, Murphy’s art prices were set by the artist.
Married to Polly Woollcott in 1945, they had 4 children: Chris, Laura, Kitty and David. While starting his artistic career as a lithographer using a limestone press, he moved on to oils. Upon moving to Martha’s Vineyard, summer home of his wife’s family, Stan decided that there was sufficient subject matter there for him to paint for the rest of his life. Early on he tried to interest owners of the large summer homes in having him paint a portrait of their house. His first sale was pivotal in that the Broadway star, Katherine Cornell, gave him both a commission and an introduction to supportive art patrons.
While well known on Martha’s Vineyard, Murphy is virtually unheard of else where. In 1958 Stan built his own gallery which was opened only during the two summer months. His own gallery was the only place he exhibited and the Stanley Murphy Gallery showed only Stan’s paintings. His decision to go it alone was in reaction to the lack of institutional support during his early career; when he would have benefited from it the most. Murphy was nearly promotion adverse and rarely exhibited in group shows or in other galleries. While there are over 50 galleries on the island today, in 1958 his art gallery was one of only three. The Stanley Murphy Gallery is the second oldest gallery on the island, with the artist collective Old Sculpin Gallery being the oldest. His daughter Kitty currently sells her art work in the Murphy Gallery. At his memorial service, long time friend, patron and art collector, Mike Straight said “as Argenteuil belongs to Monet, Martha’s Vineyard belongs to Stan Murphy.”
Book: Where Magic Wears a Red Hat, Martha’s Vineyard Historical Society, 2004. Various articles and reviews appear in the local papers: Boston Globe, Vineyard Gazette and the Martha’s Vineyard Times.