William Michael Harnett

(1848-1892) An Irish-American painter who helped pioneer a trompe l'oeil (literally, "fool the eye") style of realistic painting. He painted still lifes of common household objects arranged in such a way that the painting was to be mistaken for the objects themselves. These objects included musical instruments, firearms, and even paper currency, similar to contemporary John Haberle and successor Otis Kaye.

William Michael Harnett was born in Ireland on August 10, 1848 and then, as a child, was moved to Philadelphia. The best known late nineteenth-century painter of still lives in trompe l'oeil, Harnett began his career as an engraver, after studying at both the Pennsylvania Academy and in New York. His earliest works present quite simple, commonplace objects: newspapers, pipes, books, and mugs. They are arranged in space and so carefully differentiated in texture that the viewer has the almost irresistible impulse to reach out and touch them to make certain that the actual object is not glued to the canvas. This realism delighted his contemporaries but bored the critics who considered such works much too ordinary to be art.

Consequently, in his determination to find success as a painter, Harnett went abroad in 1878 painting and exhibiting in London and Paris and then spending four years in Munich. The result of his Munich stay was one figure painting of a monk with a long white beard, a work so bad that the artist returned to his still lives. However, he changed his subject matter to a somewhat more elegant and cultivated series of objects adding antique brass and pottery, guns, and musical instruments. When these changes did not please art critics in Munich, Harnett went to Paris, exhibited in the Salon there, and was rewarded again by fascinated viewers and disdainful critics. Harnett then returned to New York to settle down and paint still lives that sold very well to a large and admiring public. The works are broadly handled, warm and rich in color, sharp and clear-edged, and faithful to reality in the smallest detail.

Overall, Harnett's work is most comparable to that of John F. Peto. An interesting comparison can be made between two paintings featuring violins. Harnett's, from 1886, shows the violin upright and in brand-new condition with a new piece of sheet music behind it. The elements are arranged in a stable, deliberate manner. Peto's 1890 painting shows the violin askew, as well as chipped and worn. The sheet music is dog-eared and torn around the edges, and placed haphazardly behind the instrument. Harnett's works indeed tended to emphasize an almost mechanical perfection, while Peto's were more reflective of human interaction.

Harnett died on October 29, 1892 at the age of 44.

Harnett passed into obscurity for a time but interest in his work has resumed in modern times because of its surface resemblance to Surrealism and its arrangements that hint very broadly at Cubism.


- By Julie V.

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