Eustis Estate

Murphy Learning to Look

Co-curators Nancy Carlisle and Peter Trippi discussing paintings in the Historic New England conservation lab.

Most of us first look at a painting and see the overall image. We imagine being in the place where the artist was. Has the artist captured the mood of a rainy day in the city? What was the person in this portrait like? But we can also learn something by looking more closely at what’s on the canvas. How has the way the artist applied the paint enhanced the image? How does the composition direct your eye around the scene? How do the choices this artist made relate to those made by another artist?

Hermann Dudley Murphy’s gift for juxtaposing strokes of color is evident in this scene of Venice. This flickering effect—influenced by his absorption of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist aesthetics that had made their way from Europe to America—is completely different from the more hard-edged, firmly drawn vision of Venice conveyed by an unknown artist in this gallery.

Left: Hermann Dudley Murphy (1867–1945), Venice, c. 1908, oil on canvas, 31 ½ x 38 5/8 in., Gift of the Stephen Phillips Memorial Charitable Trust for Historic Preservation, 2006.44.592.
Right: Unknown artist, Piazza San Marco, Venice, 1730–90, oil on canvas, 33 x 41 in., Gift of Dorothy S. F. M. Codman, 1969.849.

Murphy’s understanding of how colors interact was one factor in his later becoming the U.S. Shipping Board’s Chief Inspector for Camouflage during World War I. Hundreds of artists joined the American armed forces’ and merchant marine’s camouflage effort, applying their knowledge of nature and optics to the visual concealment of ships, tanks, and other objects.

The U.S. Navy minelayer USS Shawmut at sea in October 1918 during the laying of the North Sea mine barrage. This ship had been painted with a camouflage pattern similar to those supervised by Hermann Dudley Murphy. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command Photo Archives.