The Old Barn in New Style

The Old Barn by John Francis Murphy, 1906
The Old Barn by John Francis Murphy, 1906

The last time I was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I was surprised to see  a painting by John Francis Murphy in the visible storage gallery.

As Murphy called his pictures purely compositional, “The Old Barn”, possibly a scene of Arkville, is nevertheless a generic tonalism landscape. The exact locale is never the concern of Murphy since what he painted was “landscape within“.  Compared to his earlier works, three noticeable differences appear in this late work painted after the turn of the century. First was the scale of his works grew. The once shadow-box painter now preferred much larger canvases, perhaps benefiting from his established reputation and a stable financial condition. Second change happened to his brushstrokes. Murphy may disagree with the impressionists’ use of complementary colors and shun of pure black, he nevertheless adopted a freer visible brush strokes which would not be seen in his 1880’s works. In “The Old Barn”, the texture of the barren field has almost an early-winter wind-blow feeling that you sense from the decadent leaves. We were all there: the upcoming bleakness was first noticed not from sight, but from steps, touches and smells. Lastly, he was less and less concerned about the strong colors of the twilight that can be somehow summarized as “the troubled sky”. Instead, there is an overall flattening effect from the monotonic color pallete as if the dominant foreground of the rugged land has been tilted up toward the viewer, a technique more often seen from paintings influenced by the Japanese art.

For Murphy, the vibrant fresh broken colors from unmixed oil tubes were too gaudy for the kind of quietude that he has always been pursuing. Yet like impressionistic painters who shared the domestic art scenes in the early of 1900, he too felt an urge of free expression to capture something transient and fleeting. Under the evanescent light, the summarily treatment and layers of pigment was a statement of a roaming mind which is more absorbed than finicking. Critics at that time praised his aesthetics although nowadays our eyes have been spoiled with more clamorous pictures and we tend to regard it as one of those in the “Brown Decade”.

“The Old Barn” was painted in 1906. George Hearn, an avid collector championing American contemporary art, immediately presented the picture to the museum and purchased it upon approval. It was one of the few paintings in the museum that entered the collection almost right off the easel.

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