Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Murphy studied at the Pratt Art Institute in Brooklyn and at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture. She was awarded an honorary doctorate by Pratt in 2006. She had her first solo gallery exhibition in 1972 and her first museum show in 1976.
Murphy has received numerous grants and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (1982), grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (1979 and 1989), and the Academy Award in Art, American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1990) and the Skowhegan Medal for Painting (2009). She became a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 2002.
Catherine Murphy has been senior critic in painting at Yale University since 1989.