History on canvas

Stan Murphy exhibit opens at Louisa Gould Gallery, giving everyone a glimpse into Island life.


When Stan Murphy died in 2003, the Island lost not only a brilliant artist, but also a well-loved longtime member of the community who immersed himself in Vineyard life. Throughout his illustrious career, Murphy captured many aspects of the Island — from landscapes and flowers to portraits of local farmers and fishermen, to commissions of some of the Vineyard’s more well-known residents and visitors.

This past summer the Martha’s Vineyard Museum hosted a large, multigallery exhibit devoted to Murphy’s work. Dozens of paintings, drawings, sketches — even the one-and-only duck decoy the artist ever carved — were on view for two months, drawing crowds of visitors. 

Now, for the first time since the artist’s passing, the Louisa Gould Gallery in Vineyard Haven is hosting a sale of Murphy’s work in a small solo show. The 12 works on view come from the collections of Murphy’s children, David and Laura, who have selected pieces that represent a range of subjects and media from the renowned artist’s six-decade career. 

The collection includes a gorgeous landscape of the field behind Murphy’s former Chilmark home, a half-dozen portraits, and five nudes (one full-color painting, three charcoal sketches, and one pencil drawing). Of the latter, Murphy’s son David notes that his father drew or painted nudes periodically, and hung them in his home. “When I was little, my friends would come over and they would try to avert their gaze,” he says. “As we got older, their reaction was more of the leering variety.” One of Murphy’s nudes famously hung at the Black Dog Tavern for many years.

Among the portraits on display at the Louisa Gould Gallery are two of Murphy’s paintings of local tradesmen. During his heyday as an artist, he earned a well-deserved reputation as a master of his craft for his landscape paintings and, especially, for his iconic oils of local farmers, fishermen, and other salt-of-the-earth types. 

Other portraits include one of a fiercely determined Captain Ahab from the novel “Moby Dick,” a full-length portrait of famed dancer Martha Graham, captured in profile wearing a long orange-red dress; and a very thoughtful image of Robert Weaver, who served as the first U.S. HUD (Housing and Urban Development) secretary from 1966 to 1968, making him the first African American to be appointed to a U.S. Cabinet-level position. 

David explains that the portrait was a commission done at a time when many members of the Johnson administration would spend summers on the Vineyard. The portrait never went to the intended recipient since, as David recalls, “[Weaver’s] wife hated it because there was no iconography of power. I think it was my dad’s radical action that he left out any official insignias or other signs of his position.”

Instead, Murphy chose to represent Weaver in an aristocratic manner, wearing a crimson smoking jacket and holding a cigar in his expertly rendered clasped hands. 

Perhaps the most notable piece in the show is a portrait of jazz legend Louis Armstrong. “My father worshiped Louis like a god,” says David. “He adored his music.” Through an Island connection, Murphy was introduced to Armstrong, and was allowed to draw studies for the portrait in Armstrong’s house in Corona, Queens. The resulting image is a soulful rendering of Armstrong looking upward, with his trumpet barely visible in the left-hand corner. It’s a remarkably intimate portrait by an artist who clearly revered his subject. 

Murphy took the painting he crafted of a prominent Islander’s house, looking for commissions to make paintings of wealthy peoples’ homes. He went door to door down the long dirt road of Tashmoo. All said no, except at the very last house, where the owner agreed. That was Chip Chop, owned by Broadway star Katharine Cornell, and she liked the painting so much she paid him twice his price. Cornell became a patron and a lifelong friend, introducing him to Adele Levy, daughter of activist philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. Levy took a keen interest in the young artist, and gave Stan a stipend of two years’ income, during which he could devote himself solely to art. In a previous MV Times interview, Stan said, “This was the making of me as an artist.”

That early start allowed the artist to eventually establish his own gallery in a small outbuilding on the family’s property in Chilmark. David notes that his father wanted to go it alone, as he resented galleries making a profit from his hard work. That was a wise decision, since in the beginning, Murphy’s output was limited. “He only opened the gallery on average once every two years,” says David. “There were collectors who planned their trips to the Vineyard around the gallery openings.”

Eventually Murphy was able to work more quickly once he switched from heavier-type oil paints to lighter ones. He also experimented with acrylics, encaustics, crayons, and even Magic Markers. 

Before he switched media, David says, “In the 1950s, if he did one or two paintings a year, using the technique of impasto painting, that was doing pretty good for him.” 

Luckily Murphy ended up being a very prolific artist, whose work was highly collectible during his lifetime. The Louisa Gould Gallery is now offering a rare opportunity for admirers of the artist’s work to own a piece of Vineyard history. 

The “Stan Murphy” exhibit will hang at the Louisa Gould Gallery, 54 Main St., through Dec 1. David Murphy will be on hand for a meet and greet at the gallery on Saturday, Nov. 12.