Artist Stanley Murphy Dies at Age 81

Beloved Artist Painted Telling Portraits of Island Generation

Stanley Murphy, renowned and beloved Island artist, died Wednesday, July 23, at his home on Middle Road, West Tisbury. He was 81 years old.

John Stanley Murphy was born in St. Paul, Minn., in 1922, and grew up there, in Buffalo, N.Y., and Baltimore, Md., the only child of John and Lorraine Murphy. Leaving Johns Hopkins University to join the U.S. Army Infantry during World War II, Stan was discharged with the rank of first lieutenant after four years of service.

After the war, he enrolled at the Art Students League in New York where he studied graphics under the G.I. Bill. In 1948, he settled on Martha's Vineyard where his wife, Polly, and her family had summered. Their first home was in Chilmark, and they moved to West Tisbury in the mid-1960s.

As a student at the Art Students League, Mr. Murphy was intimately aware of the modern art movement of postwar New York, and also the expressionist and abstract expressionist movements prevalent there. However, when Mr. Murphy arrived on the Island, he found himself painting in a representational form. He turned his attention to the great masters, where he felt the element of abstract design is always present. Because he had had no training in painting at the Art Students League, he had to teach himself everything. Velázquez, Goya, Bruegel and Rembrandt were among the painters he studied the most and from whom he received the most inspiration. Throughout his career, Mr. Murphy would periodically go to New York, Washington or Boston to reacquaint himself with the works of the masters.

Mr. Murphy frequently told of his early quest for commissions in the late 1940s, knocking on the doors of the fancy summer homes on Tashmoo, asking the owners if they would like a portrait of their house painted. Hot, tired and frustrated, the last door he knocked on was at the end of the road and belonged to Broadway star Katharine Cornell. She gave him a commission but more than that, she became a patron, fan and lifelong friend who introduced him to others who also became patrons. Their close relationship is the reason that Mr. Murphy's murals are in the Cornell Theatre above the Vineyard Haven town hall. Mr. Murphy never referred to himself as an artist, but as a painter. Art, he said, is for others to decide.

Before he was able to support his family solely by his painting, he briefly worked at Hancock Hardware stocking shelves and making blueprints, picking up part-time work on Everett Whiting's farm or Tom Waldron's construction projects. He also supplemented his income and table by shellfishing, lobstering and hunting. He was shown how to lobster by Ernest Mayhew, Robert Flanders and Dan Larsen. Other fishermen and farmers extended a hand to the struggling artist by giving him a part-time job or showing him how to gather a meal. Their hard work, self-reliance and tenacity are values Mr. Murphy identified with and captured in his portraits of Island workers.

Although a Chilmarker, Mr. Murphy, because he lived very close to the town line, was an inaugural member of the West Tisbury Fire Department, badge number four. He also served on the school committee and other town boards in Chilmark.

Mr. Murphy also honored the laborers of the Island when he painted the lichen-covered stone walls, monuments to the efforts of the farmers and their clearing and tilling the soil. His property off Middle Road has many stone walls that he tended with love over the years.

A fiercely independent man, Mr. Murphy decided not to show his work in galleries in New York and elsewhere and instead built his own gallery in Chilmark in 1958. He painted fantasies, landscapes, portraits and still lifes in all sizes from miniature to murals. The Murphy Gallery is the second-oldest gallery on the Island.

Always an athletic person, in high school and college he lettered in football and lacrosse. As he grew older he maintained his physical fitness by walking, jogging and playing golf. Mr. Murphy hauled his lobster pots by hand until the end of the 2002 season.

He was also a hunter, and his passion for duck hunting combined with his artistic sense started him collecting duck decoys. As his collection grew, so did his knowledge of Island carvers, which culminated in his book, Decoys of Martha's Vineyard, published in 1978.

For many years Stan and Polly Murphy would leave the Island for the month of August for their camp in Tor Bay, Nova Scotia. Although on vacation, Mr. Murphy brought his paints and brushes and captured the ruggedness of the land and people in a fishing village too small for a post office.

Mr. Murphy loved music and played both the guitar and piano. He frequently listened to opera, classical music or jazz while he worked in his studio. His love of jazz led him to paint a portrait of Louis Armstrong, and while Armstrong sat for the painting, it was not a commissioned portrait. For Mr. Murphy it was a thrilling experience.

Mr. Murphy did paint on commission, but more often than not painted what pleased him. He often painted flower arrangements made by his wife, Polly, and these paintings became a popular offering at his gallery. He liked to paint majestic landscapes, stone walls, flowers or a still life of a group of lemons, but he was especially interested in people.

The way he captured the essence of a person, the luminosity of a floral arrangement or the grandeur of the Vineyard through the seasons resonated with many people. Islanders became art patrons and collectors because they valued Mr. Murphy's vision of their world.

Last year, in honor of Mr. Murphy's 80th year, a special retrospective show, Fifty Years of Island Portraits, was presented at his gallery. All the portrait owners generously lent their paintings without hesitation. It was a great and unusual opportunity for people to see the wide variety of Islanders Mr. Murphy had painted over the years. It was also a rare opportunity to see Mr. Murphy at his own gallery opening, since it was the first one he had attended since the 1960s.

As a student of history and of Martha's Vineyard, Mr. Murphy was a longtime member of the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society. He served on the board of directors for many years, two terms as vice-president, and he is currently listed as an honorary director. The society is in the process of publishing a book of the retrospective portraits from his 2002 exhibition.

In 2002, he was awarded the Creative Living Award by the Committee for the Permanent Endowment Fund of Martha's Vineyard.

Mr. Murphy is survived by Polly Woollcott, his wife of 58 years; his children, Christopher, Laura, Katharine and David; his daughters in law, Barbara and Gail, and his grandchildren, Hope, Mary, Clarissa and John.

There will be a memorial celebration Saturday, August 23, at 4 p.m. in the field next to Stan and Polly's house off Middle Road.

Donations can be made to the Stan Murphy fund at the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society, or to the Vineyard Nursing Association, P.O. Box 2568, Oak Bluffs, MA 02557.