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A Byrdcliffe Pioneer: Hermann Dudley Murphy (1867-1945)

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Hermann Dudley Murphy (1867-1945)

Self Portrait, c. 1900,

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

For my initial blogs for Learning Woodstock Art Colony I am touching on artists associated with the early years of the Byrdcliffe art colony. I thought this would be especially appropriate in light of the exhibition Zulma Steele Artist/Craftswoman on view through November 22nd at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts.

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Hermann Dudley Murphy was the first teacher of painting at Byrdcliffe. The founder of the art colony, Ralph Radcliffe Whitehead, chose Murphy to be among the initial group of instructors after being introducted to him in Boston in late 1902 or early 1903 by the art collector and art educator Denman Waldo Ross. During the early years of the colony the painting classes and student exhibitions were held in what is known today as the Brydcliffe theatre. The building also served three nights a week as a community dance hall.The original studio windows are still visible on the north side of the structure.

North Side for Byrdcliffe Theatre with Original Studio Windows

Murphy was strongly influenced by the art of James Abbott McNeil Whistler, beginning in the mid-1880s when he was in his late teens and still a student. His earliest known works were created for an article on Whistler for American Art Illustrated, and feature drawings after those of the expatriate. At the time of his study in Paris, Whistler’s studio in the city became a popular rendezvous for young American art students, and Murphy may have met Whistler at this time. Whistler's work fostered his interest in depicting twilight, mist or fog laden subjects, in taking an imaginative approach to landscape painting, and yearning for ideal beauty. Even Murphy’s signature derived from Whistler’s butterfly style of signing his works.

Hermann Dudley Murphy (1867-1945)

Landscape, Woodstock, c. 1903

Huntington Library and Botanical Garden

Most of his career Murphy specialized in painting seascapes and still lifes, and took a secondary interest in landscape painting and portraiture. He painted landscapes in Woodstock, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Ogunquit, Maine, and Mt. Monadnock in Jafrey and Dublin, New Hampshire, as well as in Europe. These works reflect the influence of Whistler’s subtle harmonies and carefully formatted compositions, and are noteworthy for their delicacy.

In the fall of 1903 Murphy had a solo exhibition at his studio in Boston that featured about a half a dozen 25 x 30 inch landscapes featuring Catskill Mountain scenery. A critic reported that his pictures of the hills “are impressive by virtue of their strong and fine tonality, the impression and bigness of the forms, and, as in most of his work, the perfect relationship of color values which brings them into harmony. He has made some very beautiful and original nocturnal studies, full of deep and resonant color and some grand sky studies, in which the forms as well as the tones are as novel and striking as they are convincing” (Scrapbook, Hermann Dudley Murphy Papers, Archives of American Art). Murphy's landscape panels also grace furniture created at Byrdliffe.

Herman Dudley Murphy (1867-1945)

The Shower of Sunset (Woodstock), 1904

New York State Museum

(Historic Woodstock Art Collection,

Gift of Arthur A. Anderson)

In 1903, Murphy also exhibited a portrait of the Dutchman Fritz Van der Loo at the Rhode Island School of Design, which resurfaced in July 2017 at Skinner Auctions in Marlborough, Massachsuetts. Van der Loo is pictured in his captain’s uniform from the Boer War. The unform was originally white, but he had decided to dye it blue after he had settled in Byrdcliffe.

Hermann Dudley Murphy (1867-1945)

Portrait of Fritz Van dwe Loo, 1903

Sold at Skinner Auctions, July 13, 2017, lot # 1302

Van der Loo fought in the Boer War with De Witt’s raiders and often sported bits of his Boer War uniform with his everyday clothing. Initially, he was drawn to Byrdcliffe by Hervey White. The two had met on a transatlantic trip in 1901, and their association continued at Hull House in Chicago, He was charged at Byrdcliffe with moving people and goods back and forth by carriage and wagon. In 1905, Van der Loo helped Hervey White finance the purchase of land in nearby West Hurley to form the Maverick art colony. They paid $1500 for the 102 acre farm of Peter Ostrander located on the Glenford Turnpike on the southeast side of Ohayo Mountain, approximately two and a half miles southwest of Woodstock. Later Van der Loo set sail for China, where he worked as an agent for a British line of patent medicines.

Murphy arrived in Byrdcliffe in the summer of 1903 with a deep interest and evolving experience in frame making - following Whistler’s example he utilized frames to serve as an integral part of his artistic statement. In addition to painting, he taught a class in frame making at Byrdcliffe . Among his students was Zulma Steele (1881-1979), whose fine and decorative art is the subject of an ambitious exhibition on view through November 22nd, 2020 at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts in Woodstock. Following his stay at Byrdcliffe, Murphy set up a frame shop in his house in Winchester, Massachusetts with Charles Prendergast and W. Alfred Thulen. Murphy named the shop after the Celtic name he had given to his house - Carrig-Rohane. The artist's frame business was later incorporated into the still surviving Vose Galleries in the city. Murphy's slim, elegant, gilded frames show affinities with Arts and Craft furniture of the period.

Hermann Dudley Murphy, Example of a Carrig Rohane Frame, 1911

While serving as an instructor of decorative design at Byrdcliffe in the summer of 1903, Dawson Dawson-Watson (1864-1939) had the opportunity to learn the craft of frame-making directly from Murphy. In an unpublished memoir, he recalled that “Dudley Murphy was one of my fellow teachers [and] had just started making picture frames” (

Dawson-Dawson Watson (1864-1939)

Aster, Mullein, Bugloss, Bergamot, 1903

The Huntngton Library:

Art Collections and Botanical Library

Aster, Mullein, Bugloss, Bergamot was painted in Woodstock in the summer of 1903. It is the only painting that has surfaced from the five month period Dawson-Watson spent in Byrdcliife. The work is complemented by a specially designed and toned frame. It is one of the first hand-carved frames that the artist created. The four wild flowers represented in the work can still be found growing in the Woodstock area. Much of the furniture that Dawson-Watson designed at Byrdcliffe is ornamented with carvings featuring local flowers.

On departing Woodstock, Dawson-Watson moved to Boston to assist Murphy with a commission to paint decorative panels for a well-known businessman. The two artists remained in contact over the years, and Murphy painted a likeness of Dawson-Watson in about 1925, which recently was acquired by the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum.

Murphy’s wife and two children summered with him in 1903 at Byrdcliffe. Murphy also brought along some of his drawing students from Harvard University; their names are among the first entries in the historical register for Byrdcliffe's Villetta inn (The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum).

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