LAWRENCE MURPHY: AN UNDISCOVERED MASTER PAINTER
by Kirk McDonald
The Clarion, an occasional literary publication of the Trinity Episcopal Church, Los Angeles, May 1991.
In the mid-1950’s, I returned to California after spending the postwar decade in Japan and Italy. I settled in Manhattan Beach, and soon found a number of creative people as friends: hopeful novelists and screenwriters like myself, musicians, and artists. We wrote scripts together, attended avant-garde concerts, sat in on life-drawing and clay-modeling [sic.] sessions, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
Three of my new artist-friends were recent graduates of Chouinard’s Art Institute (a downtown Los Angeles are school which gave Walt Disney free training for his first generation of animators, a gift which Disney magnificently repaid at his death by leaving Chouinard’s half of his entire estate. Chouinard’s eventually was transformed into California Institute of the Arts and is now located in Valencia, close to Magic Mountain.)
My artist friends often talked of a remarkable teacher they studied under at Chouinard’s, the late Lawrence Murphy (1872-1947). Murphy was a brilliant teacher, and a strong influence on a whole generation of art students. Local universities and colleges had not yet set up full-scale art departments, and Murphy was known as the outstanding art teacher in California.
Between his oversubscribed afternoon and evening classes, Murphy usually set up an easel on the stair-landing to the school’s second floor, and swiftly painted, did watercolors or gouaches, or simply drew. His “stair landing” paintings were almost always on paper, extremely “dry brush.” When it was time for his evening classes, Murphy abandoned what he was working on, and knowledgeable students rushed to collect whatever Murphy left at his easel. My friends showed me a number of paintings and sketches they rescued, or that Murphy gave them while he was teaching them. I was enchanted by what my friends showed me.
Murphy’s subject matter was the American West, landscapes of Colorado, New Mexico and California, with their ranches, cowhands, wranglers, broncos, polo ponies and racehorses. There has been a rekindling of interest in “Western Art,” but almost all of it on a non-aesthetic, “kitschy” level. In Murphy’s work, I saw “Western” themes transformed into high art, as splendid and self-assured as Rubens’ hunting scenes, or Velasquez’ glowing portraits.
Murphy’s approach to painting was formal and complex, and yet concealing all traces of complexity with limpid fluidity, a style very close to the masters Murphy admired most, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec. It was clear to me Murphy was an American artist of the stature of Eakins, Winslow Homer, Sargent or Whistler.
How could such a brilliant, accomplished painter be totally unknown except to his students? I asked my artist friends. They explained that Murphy never showed his work unless friends asked to see it. He did not exhibit his paintings, or place them with agents for sale; he didn’t even keep them. As he completed his works, his usual custom was to thumbtack them to the walls of his studio-apartment. When the tacks finally gave way from the weight of seven or eight paintings or drawings, the pictures would swirl to the floor, to be walked over until they were ruined.
The truth was Murphy was not in the least interested in success by normal standards. He painted and drew for himself alone, and he considered the great masters as his only real competition. He declined to vie with his peers for awards or sales. If a discerning friend insisted on having one of his works, Murphy was pleased, but the fact that most of his work was never seen, and was thrown out with the trash, disturbed him not at all.
Like Degas, his chosen master, Murphy had an essentially aristocratic attitude toward art. The keenly exciting part of painting for Murphy was the act of composing and creating. Once work was finished, he was no longer interested in what happened to it. The work he was most excited about was always the next one to be undertaken.
In the last few years of Murphy’s life, one of my artist friends, Victor Amadio, a young Canadian-born painter, was particularly close to Murphy. Victor was a promising, intelligent young artist, but nearly stone-deaf. When Murphy realized Victor couldn’t hear his lectures, he took Victor under his wing and gave him special instruction, writing out his lessons and comments on giant folio-sized sheets of paper. Victor deeply appreciated Murphy’s thoughtfulness, and preserved more than a hundred of the folio sheets. When I showed curiosity, Victor let me pore [sic.?] over them.
Some were Murphy’s technical corrections of Victor’s own work, some were Murphy’s rapid explanatory sketches of paintings or drawings by famous masters, some outlined Murphy’s philosophy of composition, and, especially after the two men became good friends, many were Murphy’s personal comments on a thousand different subjects – his enthusiasms in classical and jazz music, his great love for Paris and Rome, his theories about the extreme elegance of horses’ bodies, or his own preference for a witty sketch by Boldini rather than an authentic but heavy-handed Cezanne. In a word, the folios proved Murphy a sophisticated, fascinating genius.
I was so turned on by this most unusual man and by his exquisite art that I spent the next couple of years interviewing everyone I could find who remembered Murphy well, and trying to track down what still existed of Murphy’s artistic output.
I discovered almost all of Murphy’s surviving works were in a single collection belonging to Herbert Jepson, a teaching colleague and close friend of Murphy. The surviving paintings, water colors and drawings were the contents of the Bunker Hill apartment where Murphy spent the last seven years of his life. Murphy willed the collection to Jepson, with the suggestion that if the works ever proved valuable, they be converted into scholarships for deserving young art students. (To date, Jepson has kept almost all of his Murphy inheritance, and to the best of my knowledge, plans to leave everything to the Huntington Museum at his own death.)
A few stray Murphy works turn up now and then on the open market, still at extremely modest prices. Poking about a couple of old-time shops where Murphy used to buy his art supplies, I’ve been able to acquire a few genuine Murphy works for myself. It is as thrilling as coming across a hitherto unknown work by Degas or Lautrec. As recently as last year, I found a first-class Murphy oil portrait of a jockey, and a large drawing of eight or ten horses stabled in a racetrack canvas tent, works stashed against a wall years ago and forgotten by the shop owner until a rainstorm and leaky roof forced him to move the contents of his shop.
From Murphy’s fellow teachers and students I’ve been able to piece together the basic facts of his life.
Lawrence Murphy always spoke of himself as a “Western man,” although he spent nearly half his life in New York or in Europe. He was born in Denver, Colorado, September 14, 1872. His family were middling-prosperous ranchers, and he grew up knowing the drudgery of farm life. Although one of his principal interests in mature life was painting horses, he was never fond of them, and he often referred to them as “pesky brutes.” He disliked ranching and couldn’t wait to get away from it. When his daily chores were finished at the ranch, he headed for town, even as a boy.
Murphy attended high school in Denver, where he received a sound classics-oriented and musical education (He played the piano enthusiastically all of his life.) and a rudimentary training in drawing and painting, his keenest interest.
Murphy’s parents died in an accident when he was barely twenty. He gave up his claim to the family property in exchange for a small lifetime annuity. He immediately moved east, first as an art student in Cleveland and then on to New York where he joined the New York Art Students League. He remained a member all fourteen years he was in New York, drawing from models and studying under a wide range of teachers. He spent much time sketching in the Metropolitan Museum. To supplement his modest annuity, Murphy found a job as a newspaper reporter. In a short time, he was promoted to “re-write man” with a major afternoon daily. It was a skill which served him well in later years. As an art teacher he was famous for his impromptu lectures, superbly organized from beginning to end, and always exactly twenty-five minutes long.
Although Murphy delighted in New York, with its colorful personalities, the opportunities to hear fine music, dine well and talk (Murphy was already a sought-after conversationalist) he lived frugally and saved his money.
When he accumulated sufficient capital, he abandoned his newspaper work and sailed for Europe in 1906 to become a full-time art student in Paris. Thirty-six years old, he enrolled in the Academie Julian as an independent student, using the academy’s models and studio facilities.
In his voluminous notes to Victor Amadio, Murphy wrote about Paris: “That piece [a late Chopin sonata] is one of special beauty to me. I knew a pianist in Paris who used to play it now and then of an evening in the course of practice. I was upstairs and the piano was on the ground floor. A house built around a patio, or rather a French courtyard. Those were delightful days, and the life was choice…”
Murphy spent six years in Paris with side trips to England and Holland. He was an excellent linguist, and French remained an active language for him all his life. He also spoke Italian, Spanish (Spanish friends said he had a “wop” accent), and German.
Murphy sought out stimulating circles in pre-War Paris. He was often a guest at Gertrude Stein’s salon, and met Picasso there. He enjoyed Sylvia Beach’s English bookstore, and met James Joyce there on his frequent visits from Trieste.
Murphy’s most valued connection was with the painter Edgar Degas (1834-1917). Degas was already nearly blind and had been forced to give up painting. There was no question of Murphy becoming Degas’ pupil, as he had hoped, but he became Degas’ friend, and was given the privilege of visiting him in his studio and listening to his acerbic wit. Of all living artists, Degas was the one Murphy admired most.
The last two years of Murphy’s European stay, in 1913 and 1914, he spent in Rome, where he enrolled in the studio of Claudio Castleluccio, another establishment like the Academie Julian in Paris, offering a variety of models and studio facilities. From Murphy’s notes to Amadio again: “…the greatest years were the two years in Rome. Then suddenly life, which had always been very interesting to me, became great. Painting, sketching, and conversation with delightful people. Paris has a wretched climate most of the year, but Rome is always fragrant, fresh, and inviting…”
In 1915, Murphy reluctantly returned to the United States. At forty-three, he was not subject to the draft, but the accelerating pace of World War I made neither Rome or Paris a welcoming environment.
Murphy arrived in Los Angeles and looked up the only man he knew there, the painter Charles Austin, an old Denver friend. Austin brought Murphy to meet his friends at the Los Angeles Art Students League, located in those days at 115 ½ N. Main Street, the site of the present Los Angeles City Hall. The League had been in existence for a number of years, but seldom with more than a handful of members.
Murphy joined the League, and rented a small two-room studio on the fourth floor of the Bryson Building at 2nd and Spring. His inherited income was minute, and he had to scrounge to make it cover his rent, his food, and his painting supplies. He slept on a folding Army cot and threw an old Army blanket over himself to keep warm in the winter. Nevertheless, Murphy hosted a party there once a week, to which his friends brought all the food and drink. His new Los Angeles friends were fascinated by Murphy’s conversation and by his colorful stories of Paris and Rome.
From his first days in Los Angeles, he painted and drew prodigiously. His subject matter he found in the ordinary street life around him: laborers on their way to work, policemen, prostitutes hanging out of their windows, fighters at the sleazy boxing academies on Main Street, black Jazz clubs in south-central Los Angeles, the tumbledown buildings of the Mexican core of the city. He roamed everywhere, a pack of postcard-sized drawing paper in his pocket, and he would lose himself in jotting down interesting compositions.
He was not the usual painter of the picturesque. Subject made little difference to him except as basic material for exciting compositions. He almost never painted en plein air. Back at his studio, he would develop on canvas or paper the compositions which evolved in his mind during his street wanderings.
In 1919, Murphy was given an informal teaching position at U.C.L.A. which at that time was located on what is now the campus of L. A. City College, across Melrose from Trinity Church, then a modest shingled structure. Murphy’s economic situation eased somewhat, and his first purchase was an old Model-T Ford. With his Ford, he was free to drive wherever he pleased, to the mountains and open country outside Los Angeles, the polo fields in Santa Monica Canyon, or the stables and training areas at Santa Anita racetrack. He often made excursions to Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. His colleague Herb Jepson told me how Murphy would jam his hat down on his head, and prop his drawing board on the steering wheel of the old Ford.
Murphy was tall, over six feet, not fat but solidly built. His mustache was neatly trimmed. He invariably wore a well cut double-breasted suit, a white shirt, a tie, and a handkerchief tucked in his breast pocket. His hat brim was tilted up on one side, John Barrymore style. When he was in a good mood, he rested one hand on his hip, like an English cavalier. He had the custom, unfortunately, of wearing his clothes until they literally fell off his back, and did not bathe until he was reminded to. A bohemian dandy.
In 1926, Mme. Chouinard invited Murphy to join the staff of her school. She was quite aware Murphy was the most distinguished art teacher in California, and she offered him a liberal salary and a guarantee he would hold the position for the rest of his life. Murphy’s reputation as an extraordinary teacher preceded him, and his classes at Chouinard’s were oversubscribed as long as he taught there.
One of Murphy’s special qualities as a teacher was his insistence that each of his students develop in his own way. The last thing Murphy desired was a school of young “Murphy imitators.” He delighted in encouraging talented young “pure painters” who came his way, but he worked just as sincerely bringing out the particular genius of embryo illustrators, set designers, cartoonists, film animators and graphic designers. An entire generation of Hollywood’s creative artists was influenced by Murphy’s teaching, and people close to him claim they can still trace Murphy’s influence in the way certain directors of the thirties and forties composed scenes for the camera.
Every day Murphy would open his battered suitcase and fill a large bulletin board in his lecture room with a variety of newspaper photographs and magazine illustrations as well as reproductions of master paintings and drawings. There was almost always a Holbein reproduction, a Goya, a Daumier, a Degas, and there would be a few bad things pinned up also, to keep his students from being sure of themselves. “That is not good, very bad.” He did not believe in conventional “class critiques,” but would come through the room during the working period, offering individual criticism. He often made explanatory sketches on the margins of students’ work or on a small clipboard he carried with him.
By 1931 the Great Depression made itself felt throughout America. Murphy’s Colorado relatives were hard hit. Murphy’s annuity came to an abrupt end and was never restored. Chouinard’s and its rival, Otis Art Institute, were both struggling to survive. Teaching salaries were reduced thirty, forty, then fifty percent, and there was speculation each season whether the two schools would open their doors for another semester. Murphy’s lifelong habits of frugality stood him in good stead. He remained the star instructor at Chouinard’s, and enrollment, after faltering briefly, rose to a new high. As many survivors of the Depression will testify, there was somehow an added zest to life, a deepened appreciation of basic flavors and sounds and colors, and a sense of closeness to one’s friends.
Recollections of Watson Cross, another of Murphy’s pupils: “…Along with the master reproductions which filled the bulletin board, Murphy pinned up many torn-out illustrations by the men he considered the best illustrators of the time. His favorite was Gilbert Bundy, a top illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, [and] the Arrow Shirt ads. Murphy loved Bundy’s color, his way with darks and lights, his smart-looking gals. Another illustrator Murphy admired was James Montgomery Flagg.
“Murphy loved good photography. He often put up pictures of football scrimmages, etc., and was excited by all good graphics, no matter where they appeared. He would pick up a Watteau reproduction. “What a pasty little trifle, but look at the incredible fineness of execution of that little foot. Beautifully put together!” He would often comment about a Daumier or a Goya study: “Not very nice people, but look at the delicious composition …” His mingling of irony and enthusiasm was a marvelous way of teaching. Murphy on a black model: “Look at that coffee-colored flesh and over it a blue light, like dust poured over it…” He trusted the visceral reaction. His favorite demonstration pieces were the Poussin and Tiepolo wash drawings: “…the greatest treasures…”
During his Chouinard years, Murphy lived in a number of apartments in the Bunker Hill part of Los Angeles, filling them with paintings and drawings until he literally couldn’t walk between the stacks of his own work. When that moment arrived, he would take his hat and his brushes and look for another apartment, abandoning everything in his last apartment as if it were so much trash. His final apartment was a two-room-and-bath suite in the old Melrose Hotel on Grand Avenue in Bunker Hill (long since demolished.) Every inche of the apartment, including the bath, was covered with paintings and drawings. Murphy instructed the hotel maids “not to touch or sweep anything, ever.” He lived there for seven years, and it was the contents of this apartment he left to his friend and colleague, Herbert Jepson.
Jepson told me Murphy always had a rented piano in his apartment, and when friends came to see him and he was in a good mood, he would play for them. The piano was usually piled high with paintings, books, scraps of sandwiches, and old clothes. His piano repertoire was classical, although he loved jazz and black musicians. He would go to out-of-the-way nightclubs in south-central Los Angeles and was often the only white there. Despite his elegant manners, he could go anywhere without fear of being mugged. In the black jazz clubs, they loved to have him at a table, sketching them.
Murphy loved going to carnivals and theaters and especially to Grade-B westerns in the days when they only showed at cheap theaters on Main Street. He had amazing visual recall, and he would go home and do dozens of drawings based on the compositions he had seen. He also liked to go to Japanese movies and draw from them. He loved contemporary Japanese magazines and the artists who illustrated them.
Jepson spent many evenings with Murphy, coming home to his apartment after school when it was still daylight, and talking and drinking with him until one or two in the morning. Murphy adored talking, on every conceivable subject. He didn’t drink heavily, and a pint of gin would last the two of them an evening. To Murphy, conversation was the most important thing in life, after painting.
Murphy would sometimes comment to Jepson on his aloneness. He said he was never bored. When he was alone, he would draw. Before he knew what had happened, he would have a whole hatful of drawings. Jepson once showed me a superb group of Murphy’s wash drawings in blue and black inks on 8 ½ x 11 in. sheets of drawing paper: circus studies, vaudeville and burlesque entertainers, buildings in ghost towns or deserted ranches, jazz clubs, weightlifters at Muscle Beach, fishing boats in San Pedro harbor; an abundance of drawings in each category.
Two or three of Murphy’s notes to deaf Victor Amadio are like hearing Murphy’s own voice:
“On copying: In Madrid, about half of the Velasquez output is always mobbed by copyists.
“In his young years, Whistler copied for a living. Clients hired men to copy certain paintings, and professional copyists made specialties of certain masters whom they claimed to have studied specially and deeply. Sometime they are good – mostly they aren’t. They say that in his lifetime Rembrandt painted seven hundred paintings and that ten thousand of them are in America.
“One would sketch from these or prepare for a more exacting technique in a painstaking copy. Sketching, one takes it on appearance, but El Greco is full of technical tricks – very difficult to figure out – I think the sketching is more valuable as study than the copying would be.
“Degas’s copies of Poussin are still unfinished after months of work – not day in and day out – but a few hours a week.
“Degas is quoted as saying that it is the only way to study – to copy the masters over and over!”
“On horses: There used to be plenty of horses to see at the old Polo Ground, and along Sunset Boulevard, near the ocean. I never watched the games, but all around were many horses being led by grooms. The game doesn’t interest me in any way at all, but the activity in the sidelines was always thrilling. When the riders have character, or ‘go well,’ the combination is always interesting. The Degas case is always that of the beautiful proportions of man and beast together. His riders make the horses beautiful. The other fellows mostly paint or draw good horses. Degas’ equestrian paintings are portraits in which the high dignity of the rider is the artist’s point…”
“Working out of doors: Work out of doors will be good if you take some knowledge out with you. You don’t go out to learn to draw; you learn to draw trees, horse, etc., from pictures, so that when you see a tree out there it is already familiar to you. Not because they are pictures, but because they are still and you can examine them dispassionately. When you are outdoors getting the thrill, you are not ‘observing’ – you can only observe what you have learned how to construct. Admiring it is something else, but admiration is everybody’s experience. So you must use the masters who are quite clear about the drawing of things.”
Amadio knew Murphy in his last years: when he was painfully crippled with asthma and chest pains, but he remembers him as the freshest and gayest of companions, full of wit and humor. Most of all, Amadio considered Murphy an open door to the richness and validity of the master tradition of painting.
According to Amadio: “Murphy approached everything in life as a painter. Even his drawings are a painter’s drawings. Every touch in his drawings is a note to himself as a painter. His drawings take a lot of knowledge to appreciate. Velasquez’ drawings have this same painterly quality.
“One key to Murphy’s work is his wonderful feeling for proportion. In his drawings of horses, for example, he contrasted and often exaggerated the barrel bulkiness of the horse’s chest to the slender waist and extremities. He often demonstrated the heavy rectangular form supported by a slender prop. In this contrast of proportion, he emphasized the qualities of grace and elegance.”
Amadio continued: “Murphy followed the ‘Golden Area’ theory of composition used by the great masters. His use of the ‘One-Two-Three Motifs’ and their proliferation into the different divisions of the canvas – foreground, middle ground and back ground – the ‘ties’ repetitions and variations, the division into volumes and tones, lead to an intricacy and complexity of structure which resembles the complexity of a symphony…”
In 1947, when Murphy was seventy-four and suffering acutely from asthma and emphysema, Herbert Jepson mounted a one-man show of Murphy’s drawings at the Jepson Art Institute. It was the first one-man show Murphy sanctioned in his entire life. The critics were uniformly enthusiastic, and every drawing was sold on the spot. Murphy himself grumbled he was dissatisfied at the sight of his own drawings, and announced to Jepson he was ready to start a whole new approach to composition. He was pleased nevertheless that the show took place.
Murphy’s condition worsened, and eventually he was admitted to the California Lutheran Hospital. There were no Murphy relatives in California, and Jepson spent most of Murphy’s final hours with him. He was in a coma at the end, and only sensed that someone was with him. Murphy thought it was a priest, and made his final confession to Jepson. Murphy was Catholic, and though he paid little attention to organized religion during his life, he always believed each person should have some sort of sustaining faith, no matter what. Death came on September 9, 1947.
A Catholic funeral service was held for Murphy at the old Mexican church in the plaza opposite Olvera Street, and he was buried in Calvary, the Catholic cemetery in East Los Angeles.
In 1948, after Murphy’s death, Jepson organized a second, posthumous show of Murphy’s works at the California [Palace of the] Legion of Honor in San Francisco. It was a considerably larger show, with oil paintings and watercolors as well as drawings. The San Francisco critics were ecstatic, and, as in the prior show, everything was sold.
What do I myself think of Lawrence Murphy, the man and the artist? Our lives overlapped a bit in time, but I never met Murphy, and he was dead and buried before I came to live in Southern California. His imprint was far heavier on the people who knew him. Murphy comes vividly to life in the recollections of his friends and students as a charming, witty, highly intelligent man.
But it is in his surviving art works that Murphy really lives. One has only to study his paintings, watercolors and drawings to know that Murphy was a master painter, a supreme artist-illustrator of the noble tradition which reached from the Renaissance to the early twentieth century. Assuredly, he was an artist of the stature of his idols, Velasquez, Poussin, Tiepolo and Degas. The world’s artistic priorities have changed drastically in the mid and late twentieth century, and we may never see Murphy’s like again.”
TAPED INTERVIEW WITH NICK BRIGANTE about his association with LAWRENCE MURPHY 9-11-1975.
Participants: Nick Brigante, artist; Kirk McDonald, interviewee.
Place: Brigante’s white succoed house on Rutherford, a narrow street that winds high in the Hollywood Hills. His living-room studio is crammed with books and a lifetime accumulation of paintings, drawings, watercolors and graphics by Brigante himself and his many artist friends.
Brigante himself is a short, trim, eighty-year-old, with the liveliness and physical self-confidence of sixty. He wears a windbreaker over a maroon sweatshirt, and a red baseball cap is perched on his short cropped white hair. When I start questioning him about Lawrence Murphy, he talks readily and enthusiastically, jumping up often to show me things to corroborate his anecdotes.
MCDONALD: When did you first meet Murphy?
BRIGANTE: It was in 1915. You see, I was a member of the Art Students League at that time, at 115 ½ North Main Street. It’s where one corner of the Los Angeles City Hall is now. The League had been there for a number of years. One Saturday afternoon, Murphy’s friend, Charles P. Austin …. Does that name click with you?
McD: I don’t think so.
B: They were both Denverites, and Austin was the only man “Murph” knew in Los Angeles. Murphy had just come down from visiting the World’s Fair in San Francisco. He was just back from Europe. Austin brought Murphy up to the Art Students League and introduced him to those of us who were there. He became a part of the Art Students League from then on.
MCD: Was Murphy on the faculty, or was it just a loose group of painters?
B: A loose group of people, that’s what it was. Actually, at that time there was no formal instructor. Previous to that Rex Slinkard had been the instructor. Most of his works are now at Stanford University. Rex Slinkard was my mentor, not so much a teacher as a mentor. He guided me into the main principles of art, Chinese Sung painting and the Renaissance. He was a friend of Bellows, and both he and Bellows were students of Robert Henri. Slinkard came back and settled in Southern California and took over the Art Students League. He was probably one of the most brilliant teachers at that time. He died in 1918, during World War One. He was only 31 when he died. But, getting back to Murphy, I’m giving you a little background on the Art Students League. Actually, when I started, a man named Val Costello was the director. The League had difficulty remaining open because it didn’t have a regular attendance. The students and people who …, knowing that the League was always there, that “we can go up there any time and pay our fifty cents a night,” didn’t all show up. Sometimes we had as many as ten or twelve in attendance, and sometimes only two or three. Then the end of the month would come and Val Costello would have to dig into his own pocket to pay the rent. I was in love with the place, and I often helped out in meeting the expenses. Anyhow, this Saturday afternoon Charles P. Austin brought Murphy up and introduced him to our group. And, of course, Murphy had just come back from Europe. He had been in Paris for five years and had lived in Rome for two years also. Being the wonderful conversationalist that he was, we were all agog listening to his wonderful stories. I was only seventeen then, and I was looking at him and listening with my mouth open, especially when he would tell us about Gertrude Stein. He had been a part of that group of Americans living in Paris before the war, and he spent a good deal of time in Gertrude’s salon. Right away he became part of our intimate group at the Art Students League. The unfortunate part of it was that for the first ten years or so of his stay in Los Angeles, Murphy had no regular way of earning his living. I don’t know how he managed to get by. He was on the verge of starvation most of the time, I know. The Art Students League was down in the old part of town, around First and Second Streets, with all those cheap coffee houses. You’d see Murphy in there, buying a bowl of soup or a coffee, and that’s all he had. I don’t know whether any of this has been related to you or not.
MCD: No, it hasn’t. The stories I get are from the Chouinard period on.
B: Later, at Chouinard, things were different. Murphy was one of the leading teachers at Chouinards, the main person there, and it was a big school at that time. The art students, when they found out about Murphy, all wanted to go there. He was one of the leading attractions not only because of his art, but because of his personality. He was a very friendly person, and he made many friends. Later on, in the last few years of his life, I didn’t get to see him very much. I know that he suffered from asthma, and a number of times towards the end he was stricken. The day he passed on, that was the cause of it. He was buried from that old church …
McD: The Plaza Church, wasn’t it, down by Olvera Street?
B: Yes, he was buried out of there. I think it is really something to be buried out of that church, too. Of course, he had always lived in that neighborhood. That was the first time I realized he had probably originally been a Catholic. I think when I knew him, his attitude toward religion was very free. He wasn’t actually that close to the church, not very pious. But I do know that as far as art was concerned, as far as Renaissance painting was concerned, he had a great knowledge of it. He was thoroughly familiar with the works that had been done for the church. Charles P. Austin did that painting up there. See that tiny one up there on the wall? He died about the same time that Murphy died, within two or three years.
McD: Murphy died in 1947.
B: Charles P. Austin had been in Paris also. That’s where he knew Murphy. Not that they first met there; they had been friends before that, in Denver.
McD: Did you ever get a hint as to what schools Murphy studied at in Paris?
B: No, I don’t know whether he studied with anyone in Paris.
McD: Someone mentioned a Claudio Castelluccio as a teacher of Murphy’s, either in Paris or in Rome.
B: Castelluccio? No, that’s an unfamiliar name to me.
McD: Unfamiliar to me, too. Murphy was a fascinating painter and an interesting man, but very aloof.
B: He certainly was that, aloof.
McD: And it’s hard to dig up concrete facts about him All you come up with are legends and approximations.
B: He was a great conversationalist, though. Not only that, he liked gossip, too. He could tell you strange tales about people, often on the scandalous side.
McD: Perhaps you could call it an Irish characteristic.
B: Yes, I was always a little reluctant to tell him any of my intimate details. I was guarded about what I said in front of him. I knew that with that quick wit of his, he would tell it to other people in a jocular way, a witty way, in order to make the conversation interesting.
McD: Jepson told me a good Murphy story. Lorser Feitelson was just back from Paris, and was boasting about having met Picasso. Murphy said: “Oh yes, I used to know him well, but you know, he always wore patent leather shoes, and no really great artist ever wore patent leather shoes.” You know, Feitelson is rather humorless, and it just cut him down, that sort of wicked wit. I’ve picked up some fine stories here and there.
B: Well, he was loaded with them. He made the Art Students League his headquarters, and he was there for many years. All the time he was there he was starving to death. He would frequent those cheap restaurants. He got up late in the morning, ten or eleven o’clock, so if he missed breakfast, he would have his lunch, maybe a bowl of soup or a cup of coffee, then later, for his dinner, late at night, he would have another meal, maybe some beans. That’s what he got by on. You’d go into his studio, and he’d be asleep in his clothes. You see, I knew him in his poverty days. He had a little studio in the Bryson Building at Second and Spring.
That was a wonderful old building. The neighborhood was becoming a bit depressed, and most of the buildings nearby were occupied by artists. The Bryson Building was about seven or eight stories tall. Murphy had a couple of rooms, a studio, on the fourth or fifth floor. He gave a party once a week. Everybody brought things. He was the host, but everybody brought the things. All he had for a wastebasket was an old lead keg. And he had a cot to sleep on, one of those folding Army cots. He slept in his clothes. He had a blanket, which he threw over himself to keep warm during the winter. From time to time he would come to me and say: “Let me have half a dollar.” Now I didn’t have too much money in my pocket at that time. I was only a kid, earning wages, and yet I was kind of reluctant, not about giving it. I wanted him to have it. But I was astonished that a man like that would ask me, you see. But he could always have whatever he asked me for. There was no thought, ever, of his paying me back. We never thought of asking for our money back. He just wanted it so he could eat. I’m telling about Murphy in the first ten years or so I knew him, when he was really scrounging around for something to eat. How he managed, I don’t know, except I think that he was getting a … income from his family, from someone who had died, and they were giving him an annuity. What it amounted to, I don’t know, but I think it was just enough to keep him going.
Meanwhile, the man was very affluent, as far as conversation was concerned. He was the wittiest man I have ever known, never at a loss for an answer. He was always full of extremely interesting anecdotes, stories and scandalous things, especially about other people, people that he knew and might have visited the day before. I tried to steer clear of him myself when I got to know him better. I felt if I said something ridiculous or put something the wrong way, he would see only the funny part of it and relate it to other people. He was always looking for something entertaining.
Everybody invited him to their houses. I would invite him home, as my wife and I would invite him over for supper. One day we invited him over for supper and he was supposed to be there at six o’clock. Nine o’clock came and he didn’t turn up. My wife and I decided to have dinner. At nine-thirty he showed up, and he was a little affronted and peeved that we hadn’t waited for him. That was Murphy. He would go wandering down the street, with other thoughts on his mind, without any regard for appointments. I remember another time when I met him wandering aimlessly down the street just looking here and there. We were both invited to a friend’s house, he and I, and I passed him on the street. I still had several miles to go in my automobile, but here was Murphy walking up the street, through the dry grass and across vacant lots, just gazing around. He didn’t know the direction he was going or where these people lived, except that he had a hunch that he was headed in the right direction. Fortunately I picked him up, or he would have been several hours late. But when he got to the party, why everything was wonderful. Murphy started his gay conversation, and people listened to him eagerly, and they were thrilled at what he had to say and the way he said it. He was very friendly, and people always forgave him.
We’d go into a saloon. The saloons were open then before World War One. There was a saloon downstairs, and in spite of the fact that I was only seventeen years old, we would go down and drink some beer, and Murphy would start telling me those wonderful stories about Paris, and I’m looking at him, drinking in every word. Everything he said about Paris was fantastic to me.
Charles P. Austin, too. I listened to him in the same way. Charles Austin, I met him when I went to work as a sign-painter’s apprentice. That’s where I first met all these people. I got a job there because I wanted to become a sign-painter, a good trade, where you could earn a decent living. It was just fortunate that I happened to begin in this particular shop where all these people were studying up at the Art Students League. You see, the superintendent of this shop was Val Costello, the director of the Art Students League. The first day I went to work for Foster and Kleiser, they put me to work driving a horse and wagon, moving the painters from job to job. In those days, there were almost no motorized vehicles. Charlie Austin came down the stepladder and someone said, “See that fellow over there? He just got back from Paris about a week ago.” It was like Christ Almighty, don’t you see? Why, I was only fifteen years old when I started working there, and all these great people, Charles P. Austin, Jack Wilkinson Smith, marine painter, Harrison … thoss were also working there as artists. They were doing what was considered at that time “the glorious California scenery,” the … trees and golden views, painting right on the signboards with just a little sketch like this. That’s the group I met the first day I got that job.
I’m going back to Charlie Austin again and his studying in Paris and knowing Degas and that sort of thing. It filled me with admiration. And then in 1915 Murphy came along and the same thing repeated itself. I admired these people because they had already experienced the things which I hoped someday to experience myself.
During his last few years, when he was teaching at Chouinards, Murphy became quite affluent. Chouinards paid him very well, I believe, more money than he ever had in his life Although his family in Colorado were well-to-do ranchers, the only money he ever received from them was a tiny annuity from a relative who died.
McD: I read a pack of letters which were in Murphy’s possession at the time he died. These carry the story a little farther along, to the Depression days, when the money from Colorado was suddenly cut off. Everyone went broke; they lost their ranches and farms and whatever wealth they had. The brothers and uncles were writing Murphy how tough things were in Colorado. Then he would answer that Chouinards had cut their salaries 40%, that “We don’t know each season whether the school would open the doors.” The same thing was true, he wrote, at Otis Art Institute. They never knew whether they would make it that year or not. Apparently whatever money came to Murphy from his family came to an end at that time.
B: Well, if he was working at Chouinards, he was pretty well taken care of.
McD: I think Madame Chouinard gave him a promise of lifetime employment there. Jepson wanted him to come to teach for him when he opened his own school after World War Two, but Mme. Chouinard had made this guarantee to Murphy.
B: Chouinard’s had opened their big school on Park View about that time. It was a very substantial operation. That’s where Murphy taught. All the young people loved him.
McD: I still get that affection reflected from every side.
B: He was so affable with every person, very friendly, but yet there was an aloofness about him. He would never let you get that close to him, and he would never get that close to you, and yet there was always that great wit, the bit of scandal that he would embellish himself, in order to make a good story.
McD: The marvelous Irish gift of blarney.
B: He was certainly the wittiest man I ever met. He spoke French and was fluent in it. I remember his waiting eagerly for each new volume of Proust as it was being published in Paris. I can remember him saying, “I just got the latest Proust!” He was really elated by it. He subscribed to the series as they came out. Of course he was reading it in French.
McD: He was a cultivated man with all sorts of literary and musical interests besides painting.
B: I was fond of him because I’m Italian myself and he had lived in Italy and had lots of wonderful stories about it. Places and buildings and the history of Rome and the people he met in Rome. I just drank it all in. You see, I was just about 17 when I first met him. Then the war came along in 1917 and I had to go into the war. He wrote to me while I was a G.I. in Europe. I remember all the letters I got from him. They were fifteen, sixteen, twenty-page letters. If you have seen some of the letters, you remember that fine script of his.
McD: Beautiful handwriting!
B: Close written, too. He would crowd into fifteen pages what would probably be a small volume to someone else.
McD: I’ve seen some fine letters in the group Jepson showed me, letters that he started to write and then he obviously got fascinated by the blank side of the page and made a drawing there and never finished. The letters paint an interesting picture of his personality. And then there were many affectionate letters written to him by friends and students.
My friend, Victor Amadio, who was one of his last students, was deaf, but a very good painter, a portrait painter primarily. Murphy communicated with him by scribbling on the edges and backs of folio sheets of drawing papers Victor was working on. Victor has saved almost a hundred of these note-covered sheets Murphy’s comments cover everything from the drinking habits of the French, music, his undying enthusiasm for Proust to his highly personal theories of composition, and technical hints on painting. I feel I can almost hear Murphy’s voice, even though I never met him. The strangest thing about Murphy was his reluctance to exhibit. Did you ever have a theory about that?
B: I have no theory about it. I suspect he never even thought about it. One thing Murphy never did was to enter into what we call the rat-race. (Brigante took down a large pastel by Murphy, a Blakean whirl of allegorical figures in a landscape, and held it so I could examine it.) This painting here I bought from Murphy one time when he was really destitute. I think I paid $100 for it. I don’t remember. (He handed me a copy of a catalogue.) “This is a catalogue for an exhibition we had in 1923. It was the first organized exhibit of modern art in Los Angeles. The Group of Independents Exhibition, 1923. The preamble.
McD: A real manifesto!
B: Here’s the list of members of the organization, the exhibitors: S. McDonald Wright, Max Reno, Lawrence Murphy, Nick Brigante, Peter Krasnow, Val Costello. All of the paintings were loaned. Perhaps you are familiar with Zorach and Morgan Russell. That’s a Morgan Russell, the little figure painting up there on the wall. And …. Shigimato, Sanger, Dodge McKnight, he was a New York man. Shigimato was a Japanese boy who studied in the New York Art Student’s League and then he came back to L. A. He was a part of the Art Students League while Murphy was there. Then he went off to Japan, and when we had this show, we exhibited several of his paintings. Rex Slinkard, Thomas Benton, too. Yes. Here are the Murphys listed, the paintings and watercolors. See, we had reduced the prices to $35.00 in hopes they would sell, but we didn’t sell a single one.
McD: How did Los Angeles respond to the show?
B: Oh, it was great, their reaction. I’ll tell you what happened. We had that show on the fifth floor of what was the Taos Building on the corner of First and Broadway. The present State of California Building is on that corner now, right across from the Times Building. The fifth floor at the Taos Building was occupied by the McDowell Women’s Club, I think it was called. There was a big, broad staircase running up and no elevators. We had to climb five flights of stairs to get up there, and it was crowded. Most of the people who came to see the show came to throw rocks at us. This was all brand new stuff. They had never seen anything like this before. The manifesto attests to that.
McD: I can see that. It mentions Cubism, Dynamism, all sorts of things …
B: Even works like Murphy’s were strange to them, and I consider Murphy a conservative. But he had a kind of brilliancy that made all of his work fascinating to artists.
Next door to the Taos Building and the McDowell Club was the old Tallyho Livery Stables. It had an entrance that went up like this. They had four-horse carriages that met the railroad at the depot. The tourists would pile on these great big carriages with maybe six or eight seats, one behind the other, and they would escort the tourists to the various hotels. The farthest away was only about six blocks. Right across the street on Hill Street and across a vacant lot was the old City jail. The inmates, the drunks and petty thieves, would line up at the barred windows, shouting at the people walking down Hill Street, especially the pretty girls. Then at nighttime, at six o’clock, the police department, the night shift, would line up in front, two hundred men or so. The sergeant or lieutenant would inspect them, the night shift, and dismiss them, and then they’d walk off to their beats. None of the beats was too far away. Those were the good old days. Los Angeles in those days really was a paradise.
McD: What did you say was the year of this lively show?
B: 1923, February 1923. S. McDonald Wright wrote the foreword. Of course when they latched onto McDonald Wright, why he just naturally took over. He used to do that, every single time, but he was very generous, too, in writing the foreword. (In the back pages of the catalogue, Brigante runs across an ad, and his eyes brighten.) There’s the ad for the old Il Trovatore Café. That was a wonderful café. We used to go there and sit around at family tables. You didn’t order anything; it was family style. Los Angeles was full of inexpensive restaurants like that, in the Plaza and nearby. When I finished work at night, instead of taking the streetcars home and coming back, which would take an hour and a half, I’d go into one of these Italian restaurants for two bits. The tables were already set. A wonderful meal, four or five courses, with a bottle of wine already on the table in front of you. Those were grand days. They had a little party for me before I went into the army. There was a one-eyed Italian guy there who knew all the Italian operas. At that time I thought I could sing, so I got up and started blaring away with this Italian opera. He stood behind me, coaching me in the words. Crazier than hell, you know, but we were having fun. You see, that was the Bohemian quarters, around the Plaza. The Plaza was the center of things, and up and down Spring Street. And, of course, it was the whorehouse district, too. I knew nothing about it because I was too young to know those things…
McD: You are exposing your innocence.
B: I used to sell papers on the corner when I was eleven years old and … would come up and say, “You know where the district is?” I had no knowledge of it, but later on I found out it was just around the corner and I was right in the middle of it. It was innocence abroad.
They’d have the big prize fights there, too. Of course Murphy was a part of that, too. The big fights were held in what they called McCarthy’s Pavilion, where Main Street crosses Alameda Street. All the fight enthusiasts would bunch up across the street in Greenberg’s Cigar Store, where I used to sell papers.
McD: We started to talk about why Murphy never showed his work.
B: Well, the only reason why he exhibited in this 1923 show was that the greater part of the exhibitions were from the Art Students League.
McD: He was exhibiting with his friends.
B: Yes, and even then I had to frame his paintings for him. Another thing about Murphy was that he was very careless about his own work. He’d start doing these pastels and he tacked ‘em up on the wall, like this, with just thumbtacks. Then he’d finish another one and he’d tack that up on the wall over the one he’d done previously, and by dint of getting seven or eight in a tack on the wall, the thumbtack couldn’t hold them and they’d all drop down on the floor. Murphy would make no effort to retrieve them or hang them up on the wall again, and he’d walk all over them. And then I’d come along and see those footprints on the pastels, and I’d sort them and put them on a table in hopes that Murphy would see them and perhaps take care of them.
I did a little drawing of Murphy. Of course, you know I gave 85 of my drawings to the County Museum, and that was among them. Joe Young was up here and selected them for Barella, the man who made the contribution. I made a good drawing of Murphy. He had on this sort of artist’s smock, with a little cape. The thing was a part of the Art Student’s League, a work costume. Murphy would wear it, and it would drag on the floor. I made this drawing of him wearing it, and it was one of the closest drawings I’ve ever made of any human being. It was a damn good drawing of Murphy. If you want a photograph of that drawing, Joe Young can be reached at 937-4250, and the extension is Prints and Drawings Department. It’s entitled My Friend, Lawrence Murphy. He was a very tall man, over six feet tall. He wasn’t slim by any means, but he was well built for his size, and he always wore a kind of a stubby mustache. Do you have any drawings by other artists of Lawrence Murphy’s appearance?
McD: No. I’ve not seen a single one. I have some photographs, but …. Never seen any other likeness.
B: This drawing of Murphy came so damn close to him that I marveled at myself for being able to catch it. I’ve tried to make drawings of my family. That’s supposed to be a drawing of me, that painting up there. It doesn’t look much like me, because I get to working around; first thing you know, I decided to change this, and change that, alter the shape of the nose and suddenly it doesn’t look like me. The reason why that one of Murphy came off was that I was working with ink by pushing the ink around with my fingers. Then there would be a linear line that shaped it, gave it emphasis, and gave it the likeness I was looking for. So it was just a very simple thing, as far as a drawing was concerned, but it looked very much like him. It was a profile of him. I don’t know why I gave it away, but I felt that drawing should be preserved. The date was on it, too, somewhere in the early 1920s.
Would you mind telling me how you got interested in Murphy?
McD: A friend of mine, Victor Amadio, showed me a small collection of Murphy drawings he owned. He had been Murphy’s pupil, and several of the drawings he’d picked up off the studio floor, abandoned. They were brilliant drawings, somewhere between Lautrec and Degas in style, and they fascinated me. I didn’t do anything about them then, but the idea of Murphy as an artist of major stature waiting to be discovered kicked around in the back of my mind. Just recently I discovered that Herbert Jepson had inherited a large body of Murphy’s work, the contents of his last studio apartment.
B: That was somewhere on Melrose, wasn’t it?
McD: Yes, the old Melrose Hotel.
B: That’s it, the old Melrose Hotel, on Grand Avenue, on Bunker Hill. That’s gone now, isn’t it?
McD: Yes, the hotel’s long gone. I’ve got a little illustrated brochure about the hotel, but it’s long gone.
B: All that neighborhood is ruined; it’s simply disappeared. All those huge buildings up there now are just like morgues at nighttime. At the time I remember that area, it was really alive with people. I lived on Bunker Hill. It was alive with people, humanity all over the place, thriving with people. That’s all disappeared.
McD: I really didn’t see it until about 1952. There was still a good deal of old Bunker Hill to be seen at that time.
B: If you saw Bunker Hill in those days, you saw real Los Angeles. That Angel’s Flight that went up, I used to make that flight all the time. I lived right on top of Bunker Hill, on the bluff that ended at 6th Street. I was living there in 1922 or 1923 when they were tearing down the old Normal School for Girls, clearing that area to build the library. I watched all that activity and even made drawings of it, of the workers all over the rubble, especially a great big smokestack a hundred, hundred fifty feet tall. In those days smoke stacks were different from those nowadays; they were solidly constructed as a castle tower in the Middle Ages. I stayed home for days watching those guys whittle away at the base of the smokestack. Finally when they got it to the point where they decided it just needed the last little bit more whittling, they climbed up to the top of it and a cable was attached to a team of horses down here, see, and then the horses gave a heave, and when the thing came down I was just like this! I was afraid it would come down right on top of me, but instead it crumbled. The whole thing came down, all the bricks, and fell within an area of fifty feet, in a cloud of dust. I have some good drawings of it still, the … and other workmen. Right opposite it, the old Bible Institute is still there.
Most of those old houses on top of Bunker Hill were built around the turn of the century or earlier. Wonderful carpentry work went into them, decorating the doors and windows. Bunker Hill was loaded with them. None of it could be saved. Most of them were termite ridden and ready to go at the least little push, they were leaning on one another. That was the reason why the city condemned them all.
Grand Avenue used to go straight up; it’s been lowered now, but at one time a horse and wagon would slip all over, trying to make it up. Why when I was a kid I was driving a horse and wagon and I looked up the street and thought that if I went up Grand Avenue I could save ten blocks. I tried it, and I couldn’t make it. I was only 15 years old; I’d try anything. I’m still trying to paint a picture for you of the world that I and Murphy knew.
McD: One of the Murphy aspects which puzzles me is his aloofness, unwillingness to exhibit.
B: It wasn’t an unwillingness. It was just that he didn’t care. When we had this show we talked about, he cooperated wonderfully. Why, I framed those things for him.
McD: I’ve picked up evidence that he would contribute to group shows from time to time and was very cooperative, but he never sought out a one-man show or looked for a gallery-agent of his own. The only one-man show I know about was in the last year of his life when Jepson gave him one.
B: In our 1923 show, even the conservative artists came along with the critics to throw rocks at us. Those people who painted the g…. hills of California, the barns, the eucalyptus trees, they called … the “Eucalyptus School.” Of course Murphy made friends with all them; He was a very friendly man, but yet at the same time he [would?] always have some brilliant sarcasms to say about the work they did. Of course, he painted many of the same subjects himself. He was famous for his horses.
McD: His horses are marvelous.
B: The horses Murphy drew were mostly the racehorse type. But you know his horses … He did those by the hundreds.
He’d have a stock of those little blanks, picture postcard size. He’d have them in his pocket all the time. Up and down Spring Street and Main Street in those days there were all those odd little doorways. Murphy would take his pack of cards, get in a doorway, and sketch all the doorways and windows across the street and all the people roaming through that area. I just happened to be walking by one time when he was standing in a doorway, sketching. I came up to him and spoke to him, and he looked up at me, thoroughly astonished. I kind of woke him up, he was so absorbed in what he was doing. Of course, I knew him well enough so he wasn’t angry. Pretty soon he became his jocular self again, and he took me by the arm, and we walked down the street together and up to the Art Students League. But he painted those cards by the hundreds.
McD: Jepson still has a number of them. Whole series of drawings, twenty or thirty in a sequence, of burlesque theatres, jazz clubs, circuses, the wharfs in San Pedro, brilliant drawings.
B: Finally Murphy bought an old Model-T Ford, so he could go places. He drove to Taos, New Mexico. He told us lots of wonderful stories about his first trip to Taos. He came chugging down the street in Taos, and all the Indians ran for cover. They’d never seen a car like his Ford before. They hid behind rocks. Murphy would tell the story with that wonderful grin of his, and it really was funny. He’d start with this grin of his and screw his whole face up in the grin. He got a lot of fun out of life, that fellow.
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