When artistic talent is just a footnote in someone’s life, strange and extraordinary things can happen. When someone’s life is already legendary, the effect can be exponential.
Such is the case with Gerald Murphy and the chain of events that led the United States Postal Service to choose his work as one of 12 “forever” stamps commemorating early modernism in American art. Its selections put Murphy in the company of such titans of the period as Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, Marcel Duchamp, Joseph Stella, Arthur Dove, and Stuart Davis. The stamps will be released next Thursday and will be available online and in post offices nationwide.
Susan McGowan, the director of Stamp Services and Corporate Licensing, said the “original goal of the Modern Art Comes to America stamp issuance was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Armory Show. . . . After consultation with our art history experts, we chose to showcase notable American modernists working between 1913 and 1931.” Ultimately, the works that looked best “within the exacting confines of the stamp format” were chosen. “Not every work of art adapts to the miniature dimensions of the stamp ‘canvas,’ ” Ms. McGowan said.
Although they met in East Hampton and it remained the one constant address of their lives, Murphy and his wife, Sara Wiborg Murphy, actually became famous for being one of the first and most central American couples in France after World War I. Their years as expatriates were documented in “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” Calvin Tomkins’s book from 1971, and liberally fictionalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in “Tender Is the Night.”
The Murphys knew everyone who was anyone in France at the time and formed lasting friendships with the Fitzgeralds, Ernest Hemingway and a couple of his wives, John Dos Passos, Cole Porter, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, and a host of other literary, artistic, and musical sensations of the early 20th century.
Murphy was also a bit of an artist himself — “a bit” in the literal sense, because the actual years he painted, seven in all, according to Mr. Tomkins, produced only a few works, thought to be as little as eight at one point and now estimated to be as many as 14. He was painstaking and precise in devising a style that prefigured the illustrative realism of Pop, sometimes using a brush with only one camel hair to get the details just right. His friendships with the artists were instructive, but also intimidating, according to several accounts.
Until a show in Dallas in 1960 and through 1974, when an exhibition organized by William Rubin at the Museum of Modern Art brought attention to his compositions, Murphy’s forays into painting were mostly forgotten.
Laura Donnelly, Murphy’s granddaughter and the food editor of The East Hampton Star, recalled this week that his reaction to the 1960 Dallas Museum of Art show was characteristic. “He was self-deprecating about it, the way he was about everything, but he took it seriously.” Given his reputation as a dandy, she said his response was somewhat predictable: “It seems that I’ve been discovered. I wonder, what does one wear?”
He was known to say to his friends that he was not a first-rate painter, and one of his paintings was found rolled up in his garage in East Hampton, surrounded by the broken bits of his tool collection. Still, Ms. Donnelly said he was serious about his work, and she believes the stamp selection would have made him very happy.
In the years since the 1974 show there have been further reassessments and more exhibitions. It started with Mr. Rubin, who said at the opening of the MoMA show that Murphy was one of the few “really major painters of the 20th century,” according to Ms. Donnelly’s father, William Donnelly, who wrote the introduction to “Sara & Gerald,” the book by Ms. Donnelly’s mother, Honoria Murphy Donnelly.
William Agee, a professor of art history at Hunter College in New York City and the author of a 1985 Arts magazine article on Murphy that he said was indicative of his “respect and admiration for his work,” said last week that the news of Murphy’s inclusion in the stamp issue showed how his reputation has continued to rise in the last decades.
A show organized by Williams College in 2007, which traveled to Yale University and the Dallas Museum of Art, was also pivotal in bringing Murphy’s work back to the attention of the art world. The show placed the work in the company of pieces by Picasso, Leger, and other contemporaries in France, and critics found that it measured up to the international modern masters just fine.
In his review of the Williams show, Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker said, “Usually, I’m unbeguiled by the rich and glamorous, and I attended ‘Making It New’ in a resisting mood. Then I looked. Gerald’s paintings are a gold standard that backs, with creative integrity, the paper money of the couple’s legend. . . . If one of the lost paintings, ‘Boatdeck’ — a sensation at the 1924 Salon des Independants, in Paris — had survived, it surely would be an icon of modernism.”
Although Ms. Donnelly has not heard from the Postal Service about whether there will be any event associated with the stamp’s release, she took part in an informal one this month with some of the writers who have focused on her grandparents in recent years, such as Amanda Vaill and Deborah Rothschild, at Bemelmans Bar in New York City. Ms. Donnelly said it should have been at the Algonquin, given her grandparents’ long association with New Yorker writers such as Mr. Tomkins and Dorothy Parker, who, when they both lived in the Hotel Volney on the Upper East Side, watched over Sara Murphy and vice versa after Gerald died in 1964.
When she was growing up, Ms. Donnelly remembered, she spent time with her grandfather in East Hampton, where he would read his grandchildren Edward Gorey cartoons as bedtime stories and take them to Shelter Island to find haunted houses, making deviled eggs for a picnic and calling them “ghost eggs.”
In “Sara & Gerald,” Mr. Donnelly mentioned Jeffrey Potter’s recollection of Murphy’s “dancing with his golden granddaughter alone with a delight and pride in his expression” at an East Hampton fair when she was very young. Murphy died when Ms. Donnelly was in the fourth grade.
In “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” Mr. Tomkins recalled the more glamorous aspects of the Murphys’ time in France, which lasted for more than a decade. The couple moved there because they found America’s cultural and political conservatism during those years to be stifling. With radically new developments in painting, film, music, and literature, Europe was where the 20th century was actually happening, Mr. Tomkins wrote.
After years in their house, Villa America, in Antibes, a Riviera town they helped make chic and famous, they left France for good in 1933, following the relapse of their son Patrick in his bout with tuberculosis, a disease he contracted in 1929 when he was 9 years old. He eventually died at age 16 in 1937, after his older brother, Baoth, succumbed to meningitis in 1935, also at age 16. The Murphys were heartbroken at the loss of their two sons, and the illnesses were the impetus for Gerald to stop painting.
After France, Murphy went back to work at his family’s business, the Mark Cross Company in New York City, which was foundering after his father’s death in 1931. He brought the company back to profitability and remained there until his retirement 22 years later. Through a series of residences, the Murphy’s East Hampton property, culled from an estate that was at one time 600 acres, was a constant. The family’s divestiture of their land continued over time, and the one remaining cottage on the beachfront property, called the Pink House for the faded color of its walls, was sold last year and has since been torn down by the new owners.
Ms. Donnelly said she remembers the Leger that hung at her grandparents’ house and first finding out about their famous friends in high school when she started reading 20th-century literature and learning about modern art. “My mother was reticent about speaking about that part of their lives, so it was a surprise.” She said her first thought upon hearing it was that she wanted to meet Picasso. It never happened, but she did get to know Parker from her visits to her grandmother until Parker’s death in 1967. Sara Murphy died in 1975.