Around 1990, when both my grandmother, Dorothy Ruth (McMurry) Black (1917–1997), and her first cousin, Arthur “Art” Edgar McMurry (1915–2001), were still alive, I paid a visit to Art out at his home on Black Lake, outside of Olympia, Washington. Art had become the caretaker of the McMurry family heirlooms, and in addition to the photos and artifacts he possessed, he had a prodigious memory for family history.
Art pointed out three old paintings he had on the walls of his house and told me that they were painted by Elizabeth Miller McMurry (1828–1876), his great-grandmother and my 3rd-great-grandmother. Previous to this, I hadn’t heard anything about Elizabeth being a painter. Her three paintings were amazing. They all appeared to have been painted with oils on canvas and then coated in varnish. Each of the paintings had been framed in ornate, gilt wooden frames. The frame of one painting had three areas of modest damage, and the canvas of that same painting was punctured and torn—apparently from having fallen on a dining room chair at some point. The other two paintings and frames were in better shape.
Art told me that the paintings were painted by Luke McMurry’s wife, Elizabeth Miller McMurry, as they were travelling west by wagon to the Washington Territory. The three paintings were of differing subjects:
- A mountain landscape with a waterfall and elk
- A botanical still life of flowers
- A pastoral scene with a boy and cattle
If what Art said was accurate, then the canvases were painted at some point between Elizabeth and Luke’s marriage in St. Joseph County, Indiana, on September 17, 1851, and Elizabeth’s death near Carlisle, Arkansas, on February 6, 1876.
The mountain landscape with waterfall and elk may appear to be the crude, but this is due to the poor quality of the photographs I have at hand (see notes on photography below). I remember it being a very dark painting, reflecting the dark, wet rocks being depicted. In fact, as an indication of how poor the photograph really is, notice that you can’t even see the waterfall or the elk for which I named this painting when I saw it in person:
The botanical still life is a tall, narrow painting of flowers, buds, stems and leaves:
The last of the three paintings, the pastoral scene with a boy and cows, is definitely my favorite, and I took several detail shots that I’ll use in part two of this post.
So, are these really mid-19th century paintings? Were they really painted by Elizabeth Miller McMurry? Do other family members (knowingly or otherwise) have other paintings that might have also been created by Elizabeth?
Ownership history of the paintings
From what I was able to piece together from what Art and Dorothy told me, these paintings passed to Elizabeth’s son James (“Jim”) Miller McMurry (later a talented photographic artist himself) on his mother’s death in 1876. Then Jim passed them along to his nephew Frank Ross McMurry and his wife Lucinda Tracey (Bailey) McMurry, as Jim was staying with Frank and Lucinda for a while and Lucinda was the family historian. Jim passed away in 1944, and Frank passed away in 1949, and in the years after her husband’s death, Lucinda suffered a series of strokes: the first deprived her of her peripheral vision, the second deprived her of some mental capacity and memory, and a very bad third stroke that occurred in 1958 and which left her in nearly a vegetative state. She lived for another two years in a rest home in Portland near her daughter Harriet, and it was during these two years that possession of the paintings and all of the McMurry family history items somehow passed to Art McMurry. Upon Art’s death, I believe the paintings passed to one of his daughters.
An aside on the poor current state of photography of the paintings
I do not yet have good, high-resolution digital copies of these paintings to work with, but I do have a few underwhelming photos that I took of the paintings in 1990. That was a few years before the first consumer digital cameras came out, so I had just my trusty old Nikon FE-2 film camera. Art’s house was dark and had few lights, and the weather must have been wet (as it is on all but 50 days of the year in Olympia), as I didn’t consider photographing the paintings outside. Without good lighting, I had to do what I could with my flash unit to try to get some decent indoor shots, figuring I would come back another time with the proper equipment to take a series of really good photos.
My career took a sharp turn shortly after this visit with Art, and I went from being a laboratory tech and collections manager for a paleoanthropological institute to being in charge of logistics for the institute’s African and Middle Eastern expeditions. After several years of spending four to six months of each year overseas (and most of the remaining time preparing for said travel), I headed to the East Coast for graduate school. While I was away in graduate school, Art McMurry died, and I lost track of the paintings, so I never did get a chance to take better photos. I’ve recently been in touch with Art’s great-granddaughter, Crystal (Springer) Warren—also a family historian—and she’s helping me track down the paintings so that we might be able to produce a series of high-resolution digital surrogates of the paintings.
Next steps—hints regarding the dates and settings of the paintings