Elizabeth Miller McMurry’s paintings, part 3

P1000926In part one and part two of this post, I introduced and discussed a trio of oil paintings that I had last seen back in the 1990s. These paintings were reportedly done by my great-great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Miller McMurry, who died near Carlisle, Arkansas, on February 6, 1876, when she was only 47 years old. I was told by my first cousin twice removed, Art McMurry, the owner of the paintings at that time, that they were painted by Elizabeth while she and her husband were traveling west by wagon. If that were indeed the case, then these canvases would have been painted at some point between Elizabeth and Luke’s marriage in 1851 and Elizabeth’s death in 1876.

Last month I traveled to Olympia, Washington, to see my father and do some family history research. Thanks to the help of my cousin Crystal (Art’s great-granddaughter), a fellow family historian, I was able to locate and visit two of the three paintings. These two—the pastoral scene and the still life with flowers—were in the home of Crystal’s grandmother Carole (Art’s daughter). The last time I had viewed the paintings, the rain had prevented me from being able to take good photos of the paintings. For the five days I had been in Washington before meeting with Crystal and Carole, the weather had been mild and clear. On the day I was to meet Crystal and drive out to her grandmother’s house, the sky opened up and we had torrential rain as well as thunder and lightening; even the locals were surprised by the volume of the downpour.

When we arrived at Carole’s house, what first struck me about the paintings was just how large they were relative to what I was expecting. I clearly hadn’t remembered the sizes of the paintings, and in my memory they had become much more modest in size. In reality, the pastoral scene in its frame measured 36 by 48 inches. The frame of the pastoral scene was rather large by modern standards, adding six inches on all sizes to a canvas that measured 24 by 36 inches.

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When I drew closer to the paintings, I noticed just how richly and accurately detailed the paintings were, and how well-executed they had been. There were no shortcuts taken to give an impression of detail—the detail in these paintings was genuine; faithfully reproduced from what must have been long hours of careful observation of the subjects.

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Carole let me take the two paintings in her care to get some much needed conservation work done on them. My wife and I came back three days later, on what was thankfully a clear if somewhat humid day, to carefully pack the paintings and ready them for their trip back to California with us.

The trip was uneventful and relatively quick, with us reaching home late the next day. As I had to be a work early the next morning, we stored the packed paintings in what has become the family history room. My travel and work schedule was far too full for the next few weeks, so the paintings stayed packed while I waited until I had time to properly unpack and examine the paintings.

I looked forward to this weekend all week, as this was to be my first free weekend at home in six weeks. I’ve so far only unpacked one of the two paintings (the pastoral scene), and when I did, I immediately discovered something suspicious that warranted investigation: each of the canvas’ four stretcher bars were stamped with the following:

Patented Sept. 1884,
THAYER & CHANDLER
CHICAGO.
Canvas back 1
Canvas back 2Canvas back 3Canvas back 4

I had noticed the stamps while packing the paintings at Carole’s house, but I hadn’t seen the date clearly, because the light was low and we were moving quickly.

Clearly the 1884 date presents a problem, given that Elizabeth died in early 1876. Either the canvas had been re-mounted and framed several years after Elizabeth’s death, or the canvas was on its original stretcher bars and thus could not have been painted by Elizabeth.

From what I can tell, Chandler & Taylor was then a sizable mail order art supply company in Chicago; a sort of Sears & Roebuck, but for artists (they still exist, apparently, as suppliers of airbrushes). They put out a 139-page catalog entitled “Catalogue and Price List of Thayer & Chandler: Importers and Dealers in Artists’ Materials, Drawing Papers…” in 1884 that would have been used to purchase this canvas, if it hadn’t been purchased in person in Chicago.

It’s not hard to imagine the circumstances that may have resulted in this canvas being stretched and framed years after Elizabeth’s death. Art McMurry related a story of how Elizabeth “painted these from the back of a covered wagon.” Whether or not that was actually the case, it is clear that Elizabeth and her family were on the move in the last two decades of her life (the period when the painting was most likely painted).

It’s still too far early to come to any conclusions—the painting has yet to be conserved, analyzed, and closely examined for further evidence—so at this point I’ll just present my operating hypotheses (for later testing):

  • Elizabeth painted this painting around 1865;
  • The boy in the painting is her younger son, James Miller McMurry;
  • The painting was painted from life at the family home along a tributary of the Green River in Effingham County, Illinois;
  • The canvas was rolled up after it was finished, making it easier to transport;
  • Elizabeth’s early death came as a shock to the family;
  • Her family continued to be on the move until the early 1880s, and the canvas remained in its practical, rolled state;
  • In the early 1880s, the family settled in Thurston County, Washington;
  • By 1884, the family had built a home on Ward’s Homestead in Thurston County;
  • By 1885, James M. McMurry, who took after his mother in terms of artistic talent, takes up photography;
  • By 1886, James had moved to Port Townsend (presumably with the rolled canvases) and became a professional photographer;
  • Between 1885 and 1900, James ordered the stretchers and perhaps the frames for some of his late mother’s paintings (and perhaps stretched and framed them himself);
  • James kept these paintings for the next 50 years, a sentimental treasure of his mother as well as his own past;
  • In the late 1930s, having no permanent home of his own on account of his travels, James was living with his nephew Frank Ross McMurry and his family in Olympia, WA;
  • James brought the paintings with him to the F.R. McMurry home and hung them there;
  • In late 1939 or 1940, James decided to move permanently to Northern California (perhaps to be nearer to his adopted sons);
  • As Frank’s wife Lucinda was the family historian of her generation, and because the paintings were already there (and probably to no small degree because he was in his 80s and he didn’t want to deal with having to move non-essential items to California), James told Frank and Lucinda that his mother’s paintings should stay in their home once he left for California;
  • James died in July, 1944, in California, and was buried there;
  • Frank died in 1949, also in California;
  • After Lucinda had a stroke, she went to live with her daughter Harriet in Oregon;
  • Art McMurry, Frank’s nephew, as the family historian of his generation, took possession of the paintings and cared for them until his death in 2001.

I’ll post new developments and evidence as they become available.

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