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Frame by Frame

Stopped short by a serene scene

Christopher Mir

NEW HAVEN — Something short of a masterpiece, “Bibliotheque,” by Gerald Murphy, has something nonetheless magnetic about it. Amid the gorgeous cacophony of modern styles on view in the Yale University Art Gallery, most of them forged by more famous names, it stops you short every time.

Its calm is palpable, its classical remoteness — the remoteness of the moon, of a father’s unoccupied study — communicates something hushed and inviolate. You want to hold your breath.

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Murphy painted only a handful of pictures: The death of his two sons reordered his priorities (how else to put it?). He’s better known as one of the great expatriate Americans in France: patron and friend to innumerable modern artists, among them Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger; inspiration, along with his wife, Sara, for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Dick and Nicole Diver in “Tender Is the Night”; subject of Calvin Tomkins’s beloved New Yorker profile-turned-book, “Living Well Is the Best Revenge.”

We’re accustomed by now to the notion of “emotional intelligence” and to numerous other forms of particularized intelligence. The Murphys had social intelligence — to a degree that was dazzling. Together they generated a whole social weather system on the French Riviera. For fellow expatriates and artists alike, they personified a self-consciously modern 1920s dream life.

Gerald, according to those who knew him, had the kind of charisma that derives not just from enthusiasm and energy but from what used to be called manners — a level of sensitivity and consideration that utterly disarmed people. It was authentic and instinctive rather than affected.

But such talents come at a price, and Fitzgerald’s great book, which is partly about himself and his wife, Zelda, is also about the Murphys and the melancholic flipside of their social virtuosity.

His description of Dick Diver, who, like Murphy, “had the power of arousing a fascinated and uncritical love” in people, is justly famous: “He sometimes looked back at the carnivals of affection he had given as a general might gaze upon a massacre he had ordered to satisfy an impersonal bloodlust.”

Was painting, with its silences, its serenity, its remove from the rapids of frenzied sociability, medicinal for Murphy?

Quite likely, although it was more than mere therapy. It had to do, too, with love.

This picture, like several other extant Murphy paintings, is a kind of portrait at one remove of his father. It depicts, in a fastidious, clean-lined Cubist idiom more heavily influenced by his friend Leger than by Picasso, his own father’s library.

The books, the bust, the classical columns, the magnifying glass, the half-occluded globe — they all lock together like the mechanical parts of a clock. The rhymes, of curves and straight lines, and the balancing of all their nifty intervals, have an indelible rightness. Everything, though fragmented in the modern manner, fits back together.

As I said: a dream.

Murphy’s father here recalls mountains as described by Elias Canetti: “Mountains as a blue horizon in the distance. Tender, untouchable pride.”

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.
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