The Philadelphia sculptor Samuel Aloysius M. Murray (1869-1941) was just the sort of artist who gets short shrift from art history. He wasn't hugely gifted. He wasn't ahead of his time. He was good, but not quite good enough to achieve great fame. And for 30 years he worked in the shadow of a master.
"Samuel Murray: The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Collection," which opens there today, is partly blessed and partly cursed by Thomas Eakins' ghost.
The two men were fast friends. They shared a studio for eight years. They went on hunting trips together, they posed for one another. When Walt Whitman died, they bicycled together to his home in Camden to take the poet's death mask. Until 1916, when Tom Eakins died, with Murray at his bedside, their careers were intertwined.
Both Eakins, the great painter, and the younger Murray, a sculptor who was not so great, were boxing fans, outdoorsmen, students of anatomy and artists who loved teaching. Both specialized in portraits that were unpretentious, soul-revealing, accurate and candid. They knew each other's families, they knew each other's friends. Thirty-seven subjects sat for portraits by both men.
If mastery were transferrable, Murray would have been a better artist than he was. He was neither crass nor lazy, but he didn't have the touch. Eakins' portraits blaze with life. Murray's merely glow.
Of these 36 sculptures, four are portraits of his friend. One shows Eakins sitting, as he often did, his palette in his hand, cross-legged on the floor. A second is a life-sized bust, the third portrays his hand. The fourth shows Eakins in his shirt-sleeves, standing deep in thought as if staring at his easel. On the base of that small bronze Murray has inscribed: "To My Dear Master Thomas Eakins."
Murray, of course, knew their talents were unequal. "Dear Master" was a phrase that he often used when referring to his mentor. Even in the 1930s, when Eakins was long dead, Murray said that while at work he could often feel "the Boss" looking over his shoulder.
Murray, the 11th of 12 children of an immigrant Irish stonemason, was 17 when he enrolled, to study painting, in the newly formed Art Students' League of Philadelphia. Eakins was the school's director--and its sole instructor. Michael W. Panthorst, who organized the Hirshhorn show, writes in his useful catalogue that "in 1890, Eakins secured a part-time faculty position for Murray at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women (now the Moore College of Art). From that time until the week before his death in 1941, Murray taught modeling and lectured on anatomy at the school."
Murray often made statuettes of the sort Victorians installed in their parlors. One of the most imposing is a life-size portrait bust, in the Roman style, of Eakins' father, Benjamin. Another handsome piece is a little full-length plaster of the painter's wife.
Murray had, as Eakins did, an eye for character revealed through posture and through gesture. His statue of the painter David Jordan catches, with good humor, the pride of that gallant. His charming little statue of the Rev. Msgr. James P. Turner shows that Catholic clergyman strolling with an open book, deep in pious thought.
Murray received a few commissions for large public sculpture. One of these, "Winged Victory" (1909-10) is installed at Gettysburg. A second, "Commodore John Barry" (1907) stands near Independence Hall. These statues, especially when they're compared with the public statues of Daniel Chester French and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, seem a little hokey.
The late Joseph H. Hirshhorn, a great admirer of Eakins (he gave the nation some 118 objects by that master) bought most of these Murrays in 1965. In doing so he once again rescued from obscurity a deserving, worthy artist not quite of the first rank. Little one-man shows of this sort, all drawn from Hirshhorn's gift, are one of the chief virtues of that admirable museum. The Murray exhibition closes July 18.