December 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 8
A picture frame is, or should be, more than an adjunct to a work of art. If properly made, it is itself a work of art. And if properly conceived, it is a way of mediating between a picture and its surroundings. Historical examples illustrate the artistic potential of the frame. A late-fourteenth-century French Virgin and Child in the Frick Collection was painted on the same piece of wood from which the frame was later carved. The round frame for Michelangelo’s Holy Family of 1503, attributed to the artist, features carved heads that gaze inward to the figures of the painting, a kind of ready-made audience. By the late nineteenth century in America, however, the art of framing had fallen badly. Mass production had lowered manufacturing standards, and the unchecked influence of Continental aesthetics had resulted in a dominant framing style that was overripe and confused. The time and place were right for a distinctively American reformation. The Boston painter Hermann Dudley Murphy, through his Carrig-Rohane framemaking shop, did more than anyone else to bring one about.
Murphy was born in Marlborough, Massachusetts, in 1867 to an Irish immigrant father and a Yankee mother. He studied at the new Boston Museum School, worked as an illustrator, and in 1891, like so many young American painters of his generation, took off for a sojourn in Paris. It was here that he came under the influence of the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, whose own career as a framemaker dated back to the 1860s. Whistler believed that frame and painting should harmonize in color and in style and that the integrated unit should in turn harmonize with the room in which it was placed. These ideas had a profound impact on Murphy, who felt thwarted by the poor quality of frames then available. The young artist bought what materials he could afford, taught himself to carve and gild, and returned to Boston around 1897.
Boston was then in the grip of the Arts and Crafts movement, which favored strong, simple lines and durable construction. This reinforced Murphy’s new insights. He began to experiment with frames for his own paintings, stripping away the ornamental excesses of Continental style in favor of a cleaner look. By 1898 the first American reviews of his painting also commented favorably on his frames. An indifferent businessman, he nevertheless saw the need for a shop that would produce frames of high quality and strong, modern design. In 1903 he opened the frame shop Carrig-Rohane (Gaelic for “red cliff) in the basement of his Winchester home. Convinced that frames were worthy of attention as artworks, Murphy became the first American framemaker to sign and date his work.
Financial success was quick, and critical success followed. By 1906 Murphy had gained a reputation as the founder of what International Studio was already calling the “Boston group” of framemakers—“the first serious attempt in this country to restore the picture frame to something of its old-time honor and to introduce the spirit of individual artistic responsibility.” By 1907 Murphy was, according to The Sketchbook , “the leading frame manufacturer in Boston, that is, of high-priced frames.” (High-priced they were, selling for twenty to twenty-five dollars in a time when a meal at a fine restaurant might cost one dollar.)
By 1909 Murphy numbered among his customers the artists Emile Carlsen, Frank W. Benson, Abbott Thayer, and Childe Hassam. The lovely gilded frame seen here was manufactured in the Carrig-Rohane studio that year, and it represents the Murphy shop at its best. The outer carving is openwork; the channel behind is painted black to bring out the extreme assurance of the work. This example is on the high end of the price scale for Carrig-Rohane frames, which are now regarded as highly collectible; a New York gallery specializing in period frames and mirrors values it at twenty-eight thousand dollars.
Murphy had a relatively short career as the proprietor of Carrig-Rohane. In 1917 he turned over the operation to Boston’s Vose Gallery. The First World War took a toll on the shop when craftsmen were called up for military service; the Depression dealt the business a greater blow. Vose finally shut down the shop in 1939. Its continuing influence can be seen, however, in the work of the craftsmen Walfred Thulin and Charles Prendergast (early Murphy associates who went on to distinguished framemaking careers of their own) and the mid-twentieth-century work of framemakers in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
Little remembered today as a painter, Murphy nevertheless made a lasting contribution to framemaking. Contemporary framemakers like Robert Kulicke continue to reinterpret traditional styles for a booming American art market. And scores of others working around the country follow in Murphy’s path, bringing closer together the allied arts of painting and presentation.