I have known the name of the painter John Francis Murphy since I began to study American paintings. He was associated with the American Barbizon and Tonalism schools without geographically joining the Old Lyme Colony.
Thus when a painting of Murphy offered by John Moran Auction’s showed up, it immediately caught my eye.
The painting was dated in 1876 which was a crucial year for Murphy. In 1874, Murphy spent the late summer and early autumn in Keene Valley, a trip that cost him almost all his finished work. The trip was a turning point for the 31 year old painter, it was both a success and a failure. He was photographed in the company of Winslow Homer and enjoyed a sense of professional acceptance from fellow painters like Wyant, Tryon; but when he tried his best at a fashionably large canvas in the manner of Church and Bierstadt, he couldn’t transform lakes and mountains into miracles of light and air. Therefore, there were no further attempts in his career to pursue grandeur or sublimity, in his own words: he could add nothing to a genre already mastered by his “seniors”. In 1875, he left Chicago to live in New York. He lived on 205 East 32nd Street. His career had a slow start. In fact, the first six months of 1876 brought him only $76 income. But it was this period that he began to mature into his style: the fondness of vapor, shadow, and mystery, all painted in a soft mood.
It is not a surprise that Murphy’s most admired writer was Thoreau. It was the intimate nature, or habitable wildness that dominated his canvases. Interestingly, by the time Murphy was elected to become a full academician, the Hudson River School style gradually became obsolete and Americans grew to favor paintings that appealed to feelings first instead of the intellect or moral sense.
In this painting, I see neither eternity nor serenity. The wind blows, the clouds fleet, the tree whistle. Somber mood comes through the low land bushes that are combed by brooks. Nothing is decisive, or final. But the transient moment has a sheer beauty that can hold eyes long enough as if the beauty lies within the uncertainty. Isn’t it true that sometimes the best sceneries happen at the most unexpected places or moments? Murphy knew it and registered the transient beauty into something lasting ever.