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William Harnett

See also: American Art


Two artists from Philadelphia, William Michael Harnett and John Frederick Peto, engaged in a virtual fetishization of the mundane. Their common subject, indeed their obsessive theme, was still life: Harnett seldom painted the human face or figure, and Peto never did, except when quoting a photograph. Harnett, the more popular of the two though, in the end, a lesser artist, traded on the relative naivete that Americans had about illusion at the dawn of the photographic age: less blase than we are about images, because less drenched in them, his public loved to have its eyes fooled. People associated the trompe l'oeil painter with the trickster, the con man, the card sharp. How the hell did be do that? To be fooled and know you are being fooled (along with others) is a truly democratic joy. "So real is it," wrote a Cincinnati Journalist in 1886 about a Harnett called The Old Violin, "that [a guard] has been detailed to stand beside the picture and suppress any attempts to take down the fiddle and bow... Mr. Harnett is of the Munich school, and takes a wicked delight in defying the possibillties." To others, Harnett's skills suggested a classical parallel: he was the American Zeuxis, the ancient Greek painter who supposedly could paint grapes so lifelike that birds flew down to peck at them. Little as we know of Harnett, it seems likely that he enjoyed the idea of the artist as forger - the shady implications of the illusionist's tour de force. One of the things he painted, for instance, was money: Treasury bills, as inviting to the American hand as Zeuxis' grapes were to the bird's beak. Desire makes deception, and what is more desirable than money? You may not like a peach, a dead rabbit, or an old visiting card nearly as much. A reproduction, on a flat surface, of a flat (but crinkled) piece of paper - this held unusually rich possibilities of deception, but the trouble was that the U.S. Treasury, not interested in the philosophical questions that surround the shifty point where reproduction ends and forgery begins, took a different view. In 1886 the Feds confiscated a Harnett painting of a five dollar bill from the wall of a New York saloon and visited Harnett's studio with the intent of arresting him for forgery. He talked his way out of it.

The son of an immigrant Irish shoemaker from Cork, Harnett died of kidney failure at the age of forty-four. His earliest paintings, done in the 1870s, are stiff, naive, and curiously old fashioned; you could almost take them for the work that Raphaelle Peale, America's first still life artist, had been doing in 1815. (And yet he probably never saw a Peale, whose work had sunk from sight long before.)

By the end of the decade, his style had matured. The Artist's Letter Rack, 1879, is a collation of letters, visiting cards, and a theater ticket, the meager index of an artist's social life, held by a crisscrossed square of pink tape to an unvarnished pine board. Everything is actual size, and the flatness of the board corresponds to the flatness of the painting, so that the illusion is perfect. The marks of pencil and chalk on the board look like chalk and pencil, not oil paint; each grain line in the cheap wood and fuzzy fiber in the torn paper edges is there, and the play of the yellow and blue rectangles against the square of tape has the lovely spareness of a Motherwell collage.

Harnett's work was made in a time when America was flooded, as never before, with brand new, machine made, mass marketed, store bought goods. And yet these never appear in his paintings. As he put it (in his sole recorded comment on his own work): "The chief difficulty I have found has not been the grouping of my models, but their choice. To find a subject that paints well is not an easy task. As a rule, new things do not paint well. . . . I want my models to have ... the rich effect that age and usage gives." Preferring the worn and old to the new and shiny, he also avoided the richness of the "antique": almost nothing depicted in Harnett's work is precious, unlike the exquisitely blown glass or the cunning orfevrerie in a seventeenth century Dutch or Spanish still life. His paintings, in other words, are not emblems of material glory and bear no relation to the show-offy, accumulative, value-choked spirit of America in the Gilded Age. The objects in them are not antiques, but bric a brac: in a word, junk. They are what the new rich consign to the attic as they rise, and eventually throw out. An exception to his refusal of newness was printed media not only Treasury bills but souvenirs of the enormous mass of handbills, chromos, sheet music, newspapers, pamphlets, and the rest that were pouring from America's mechanical presses. The act of meticulously hand painting images that were in fact mechanical in origin was perverse.

When Harnett - and Peto, too - painted their pipes, horseshoes, worn boxes, dented candlesticks, and rusty hinged cupboard doors, few of these "models" were more than fifty years old. They all bear the marks of recent social use. But the implication is that the society that used them is vanishing or has gone, and has become an object of nostalgia. Harnett, in 1890, painted an ivory handled revolver hanging by the trigger guard on a nail. He called it The Faithful Colt: it is old (thirty years old, this 1860s model) and belongs to the era of the Civil War and the opening of the West, in which, its title implies, it once did yeoman service. The work of these illusionists suggests a vanished age to us in the 1990s, but the real point is that it also suggested one to their audience.

Nostalgia, in the America of the 1880s, was a new kind of emotion. It consisted of a warm but anxious regard for a past which was still notionally within reach, but was perceived - correctly - as slipping away. This was the past of a less complicated and accelerated America, sparsely but sufficiently endowed with handmade objects rather than glutted with machine made ones. It is largely a masculine domain, the "world of the fathers," with its much fondled briar pipes, rusty horseshoes, and tattered books: no mothers are commemorated, since there are no objects such as sewing instruments or kitchen utensils that might be identified with the work of women. Thus Harnett, Peto, and their illusionist confreres sought, with some accuracy, a fault line in American history: the way in which America's eager anticipation of the future turned, for some Americans at least, into a more hesitant, qualified, and doubt ridden view of progress.

- From Robert Hughes, "American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America"

William Harnett Images

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1880 Cigar Box, Pitcher and "New York Herald"
1880 His Pipe and His Mug
1882 Munich Still-Life
1888 My Gems
1888 Mr. Hulings' Rack Picture
1888 Mr. Hulings' Rack Picture: detail
1888 Still-life with Violin
1890 The Faithful Colt

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