Gerald and Sara Murphy: socialites turned artistic luminaries

A travelling exhibition chronicles the intertwining story of their life and art.

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The handsome scion of the Mark Cross Co. marries a debutante of incandescent beauty. But rejecting the staid world of wealth that awaits them, Gerald and Sara Murphy sail to France and reinvent their lives. Gerald becomes a distinctly American cubist painter, and together the Murphys create an American-style paradise on the Riviera.

The intertwining story of their life and art is the subject of a captivating exhibition, "Making It New: The Art and Style of Sara and Gerald Murphy," on view until Nov. 11 at the Williams College of Art in Williamstown, Mass. The exhibition then travels to the Yale Art Gallery and the Dallas Museum of Art.

Unfolding like a family album, the exhibition blends major works by Gerald and his contemporaries with memorabilia – films, books, letters, photographs, and home movies – to portray a way of life that was itself a work of art.

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On display is Sara's portrait on the cover of a 1915 issue of Town & Country magazine and photographs of Sara steering a yacht, riding an elephant in India, and dancing in the surf with Gerald.

Murphy memorabilia include a letter from Gerald's headmaster noting his lackluster schoolwork and his yearbook picture from the Yale Class of 1912, which voted him "best dressed" and "greatest social light."

In June 1921, after Gerald completed his World War I service, the couple left for Europe with their young children – Honoria, Baoth, and Patrick.

Reflecting the course their lives took in France, the exhibition quickly turns a corner. Near a luminous portrait of Sara by William James Jr. (a nephew of Henry James) stands a wall of cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Juan Gris, Le Corbusier, and others.

Seeing these works in galleries while strolling Paris on an October day in 1921, "put me into an entirely new orbit," Gerald said.

"If that's painting," he told Sara, "that's the kind of painting that I would like to do."

Gerald and Sara studied abstract painting and joined the avant-garde who were designing sets for Serge Diaghilev and his Ballets Russes.

Drawings and photographs convey the glamor and camaraderie of Paris in the '20s, when artists were creating new ways of depicting experience in the wake of postwar chaos. Their caldron of stimuli included Russian folk art, machinery, African motifs, ancient classical forms, and American ingenuity in all forms – from jazz to industrial innovations.

Gerald and Sara became the consummate Americans to their admiring friends. In October 1923, the Swedish Ballet premièred the first American jazz ballet. Gerald had conceived its plot, sets, and costumes and enlisted his Yale classmate Cole Porter to write the score.

Gerald rapidly absorbed the principles of cubism and found in its overlapping planes a language to reconcile the shards of his experience.

Decades before Andy Warhol, he inserted American consumer products into his compositions, turning items that his father might sell – such as razors – into semiabstract images of iconic power.

The seven paintings that survive of the 14 he produced between 1922 and 1929 are on display along with reproductions of lost originals.

His majestic, six-foot-square "Watch" (1925) magnifies a watch's innards into a symphony of interlocking parts that seem ready to spring to life.

The exhibition also displays Sara's exquisite watercolors and drawings.

On Cap d'Antibes, the Murphys turned daily life into a work of art. They imported the ebullient life of East Hampton summers to the Cote d'Azur with beach parties, canoeing, corn on the cob, jazz, and vigorous athletics. At their "Villa America," they gathered gifted friends whom they nurtured with connections, guidance, and financial aid.

The Murphys inspired major literary works by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Archibald MacLeish, and John Dos Passos. On view are letters from these and other writers, Fernand Léger's watercolors of their sailing excursions, and drawings by Picasso that render Sara and her companions as classical figures.

But by the mid-1930s, both of the Murphys's teenage sons had died. So the family returned to New York for good, and with his years as an artist behind him, Gerald revived the family business.

Even in their later years, Sara and Gerald continued to nurture talented people. The circle of artists they inspired grew to emcompass a younger generation of writers, including Lillian Hellman, William Jay Smith, Maeve Brennan, Dawn Powell, Brendan Gill, and Calvin Tomkins.

Although in reduced circumstances, the Murphys remained discerning advocates of new art, music, and literature.

They thought it a privilege to support the birth of, as a quotation found among Gerald's notes puts it: "a piece of music no one has written, a painting no one has painted, something impossible to predict, fathom, or describe."

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