A Catskill Catalog: June 16, 2010

In 1887, J. Francis Murphy, celebrated New York studio artist, was inducted into the National Academy, and moved to Arkville. The National Academy was the very establishment of American art and design. It had been founded in 1825 by Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Samuel F. B. Morse, and Martin Thompson “to promote the fine arts in America through instruction and exhibition.”
Thompson was a New York City architect. Morse was a painter and inventor, largely credited with the invention of the telegraph a few years later. The telegraph would revolutionize communications and make Morse a rich man. His estate, Locust Grove, is down on the east bank of the Hudson, just north of Poughkeepsie.
Thomas Cole maintained his home and studio, Cedar Grove, in Catskill. He was the leading figure in the development of the Hudson River School of painting, the first original American contribution to the art. Cole’s romanticized landscapes, in monumental scale, often included classical or medieval allegorical references. The raw American landscape overwhelmed Cole’s tiny, distant, insignificant depictions of humans.
Cole’s big paintings often told stories. His five-part “Course of Empire,” permanently displayed at the New York Historical Society in the city, depicts the inevitable rise and fall of great prideful powers. Utica’s Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute contains his four-part “Journey of Life.” I actually took the bus up Route 28 to Utica, once, to see it.
Asher B. Durand painted, in 1849, my favorite Hudson River School painting, “Kindred Spirits,” which depicts artist Cole and poet William Cullen Bryant standing atop the gorge below Kaaterskill Falls. Durand used to tramp among the Catskills, summers, carrying both fishing rod and easel.
Durand’s earliest explorations of the Catskills were in Cole’s backyard. They were friends, and it was Cole who introduced Durand to the rugged terrain around Platte Clove near Tannersville. In the 1830s and 1840s, however, Asher B. Durand struck out on his own, fishing and sketching up the Esopus Creek, exploring the mountains then known as the Shandakens, finding food and lodging in local inns and farmhouses. He spent two whole summers in Olive.
So when J. Francis Murphy announced in 1887 that he would spend eight months of the year in Arkville, there was already an artistic retreat-to-the-Catskills tradition.
That tradition had been localized in Arkville by Worthington Whittredge and Jervis McEntee. Second-generation Hudson River School painters, born 20-30 years later than Cole and Durand, both spent time in Arkville inns. McEntee was from Rondout; he’s buried in Kingston. Whittredge eventually settled downriver on the Delaware, in Summit, New Jersey.
The Hudson River School was over with the Civil War. Hard to sustain that sense of awe, that bigger-than-life cosmic order suggested by the monumental landscapes and dramatic lighting of the, now, prewar painters. Seemed quaint and simplistic after what the nation had been through.
That’s where J. Francis Murphy came in. Born in Oswego in 1853, he was just 12 when the war ended, the perfect age for a new, postwar generation. He was largely self-taught, drawing, as a child, the natural scenes around him. He relocated to New York to be an artist, and, by the age of 23, was showing regularly at the National Academy. Within 10 years, he’d be an associate member, and within a dozen, a full Academician.
That’s when he moved to Arkville. His wife was a painter, Adah Clifford Murphy. They had an Arts and Craft cottage built, and vowed to spend eight months taking in the ambience and scenes of nature, turning those impressions into paintings in the city-spent winter months.
Soon, the Murphys attracted painters Alexander Wyant and Edward Loyal Field to Arkville, and the Pakatakan Artists’ Colony was born. Declared a National Historic Site in 1989, the series of houses on Pakatakan Road in Arkville was, in the 1890s and early 1900s a major center of American landscape painting of the Tonalist school.
From about 1880 to 1915, Tonalism was the leading edge of American landscape painting. Influenced by the Barbizon school painters of France, Tonalists made atmosphere, rather than light, the focus of their artistic attention. The Hudson River School guys had depicted dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, with strong, natural, but nearly other worldly sources of directed light.
That seemed hopelessly old-fashioned in 1880.
Tonalists, led by Francis Murphy in Arkville and, later, Birge Harrison in Woodstock, instead worked in muted tones, their dimly- lit landscapes suffused with a mist, a depiction of air, rather than of light.
J. Francis Murphy died in Roosevelt Hospital, New York City, in January 1921, after three days battling pneumonia. His death was prominent news. His burial in Margaretville is marked by a monumental granite bench, his name followed by the honorific N.A. – National Academy.
Since 1977, contemporary painter Margaret Leveson has worked in Murphy’s Pakatakan studio. She and her husband bought Murphy’s former home that year.
She recently exhibited a series of paintings of the old art colony, a place her own work keeps alive.