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The Matchless Albert K. Murray

Was he America's foremost portrait painter—after Sargent?

Albert Murray


here are those who believe that the greatest of all American portrait painters—after John Singer Sargent—was Albert Murray, the legendary New York artist (1906-1992) who created some of the most memorable and effective portraits ever painted in this country. An Albert Murray portrait was characterized by consummate draftsmanship, exquisite color, flawless craftsmanship—resulting in a truly penetrating rendition of the personality of the subject. Here are four outstanding examples of Al Murray's magnificent art:

1. A Business Executive

This portrait of a contemplative man (his identity is unknown) demonstrates Albert Murray's skill at its utmost and best. The pose is natural and yet unconventional. The meditative pose sets the painting apart from the ordinary "corporate" portrait. The light falls from a single source to our right. The subject's very natural pose creates a rumpled shirt and necktie—very different from the usual crisp "executive" look. The draftsmanship of the hands is breathtaking. Even the reflections on the lenses of the eyeglasses breaks a conventional portraitists' taboo. The result is a human portrayal that is gripping in its realism, and makes the usual "executive portrait" seem very ordinary indeed.

Oil on canvas
38 x 30 inches
Private collection (unknown)

page 1 2 3 4

     Albert Murray was a Navy officer and combat artist during World War II. His vivid portrayals of naval combat action, as well as his distinguished portraits of naval officers are among his strongest work. A bachelor, Murray lived with his sister on West Sixty-Seventh Street in New York for many years, where he painted in an elegant two-story studio.

     I recall Al Murray as a slender, soft-spoken gentleman with a warm, gracious manner. He was a hard worker. Reluctant to give up his portraits, he retained them in the studio for years as he continued to make small improvements and refinements, often to the frustration of his clients.

     Laurence S. Rockefeller, in his foreword to the catalog of a 1995 retrospective exhibition of Murray's work at Christie's New York wrote very feelingly about Albert Murray the man:

"His genius, I believe, was in seeing the creative character in the people he painted and that was the spirit that showed through in his art. That is a rare and beautiful, wonderful aptitude.

"His art must be viewed as an amazing spiritual force. He was very selfless, always seeking out the other person rather than himself and to him everything else was subordinate. When you are dealing with the spirit, the mind and body become one so all the worldly aspects seem to disappear and only the spirit seems to remain, so that one is hardly aware of details.

"Al was looking in depth for soul. It would emerge and grow on the canvasses. Painting portraits, especially for Al, could take a long time. He was a good story teller, and he had human interests to share. That's how he enlivened the long sessions.

"Combat art forced him into another style. He was good in that too. He loved the Navy and made a whole new realm of friends in shared admiration for it.

"Al's loyalty to friends engendered strong loyalties in return. The goodness and creativity that Al saw in others are sketched in his work."

     Today, only a dozen years after his death, Albert Murray's name is rarely mentioned. But his masterful portraits hanging in institutions and collections all across the country are an enduring legacy. The extraordinary standard which he set may never be surpassed.

     Albert Ketcham Murray, a native of Kansas, studied art at Cornell University and then graduated cum laude from Syracuse University. He also studied in England and France and received special tutelage for two years in Mexico from the noted portrait artist Wayman E. Adams. By the late 1930's, Mr. Murray was exhibiting his paintings at such prestigious art institutions as the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh.

     In March 1942 he was commissioned a lieutenant and line officer in the U. S. Naval Reserve and was soon transferred to the service's new combat art program. He painted portraits of the members of the Navy's General Board and did a series of paintings of crew members from the damaged cruiser the "U.S.S. Boise." He was assigned to the Fourth Fleet in the South Atlantic, then to the Eighth Fleet in the Mediterranean, where his dog tags were shot off while he painted scenes of the invasion of Southern France. Mr. Murray also was awarded the Bronze Star and promoted to the rank of commander.

     After the war, he remained on active duty to paint a series of portraits of the Navy's top-ranking flag officers in their wartime roles, including Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz signing the peace accord with Japan aboard the "U.S.S. Missouri." He was awarded the Navy's Meritorious Public Service Award and the Navy's Distinguished Public Service Award. After the war, he resumed his career as a portraitist, maintaining a studio in New York City. He died in 1992.

Biography by Marion S. Gilliland, from the catalog of the retrospective exhibition of Albert Murray's work at Christie's New York, December 19 - 21, 1995.



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