Overview

In this somber still life of a cluttered Victorian interior, well-worn yet once-precious objects have been rendered so meticulously that the artist's brushstrokes are barely discernible. Harnett's exquisitely subtle tonal modulations and his ability to differentiate textures make this painting a tour-de-force of artistic illusionism. Such trompe l'oeil art gained popularity in late nineteenth-century America, reflecting a fin-de-siècle preoccupation with mortality and the fleeting rewards of material wealth.

Historically, such a vanitas still life would have incorporated traditional symbolic elements such as a skull, an hourglass, or a snuffed-out candle as unmistakable reminders of death. Harnett's allusion to human life is more subtle: well-thumbed volumes of Dante, Shakespeare, and Tasso; a lamp; the burnt, broken matchsticks; the Meerschaum pipe and spilled ashes; the piccolo and the sheet music are emblematic references to the five senses. These diverse elements, arranged in a highly unstable composition, all seem in danger of imminent collapse.

Inscription

lower left, WMH in ligature: WMHARNETT. / 1888; reverse: 2/88

Marks and Labels

null

Provenance

Probably (Gimbel Brothers, Philadelphia), by 20 January 1920; probably sold 1920 to William J. Hughes [1863-1938], Washington, D.C.;[1] his estate; sold June 1939 to (Downtown Gallery, New York);[2] sold January 1942 to Richard A. Loeb, New York; sold 1956 to (Downtown Gallery, New York);[3] purchased 7 May 1957 by NGA.

Exhibition History

1948
Harnett Centennial Exhibition, Downtown Gallery, New York, 1948, no. 15.
1965
The Four Arts Ball, Exhibition in honor of The Greater Trenton Symphony Association, New Cultural Center of New Jersey, Trenton, October 1965 (one day).
1969
In Memoriam, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, unnumbered checklist.
1992
William M. Harnett, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Amon Carter Museum, Ft. Worth; M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1992-1993, 187, 269-270, fig. 126 (shown only in Washington in 1993).

Bibliography

1900
Bolger, Doreen. "Cards and Letters from His Friends': Mr. Hulings' Rack Picture by William Michael Harnett." The American Art Journal 22, no. 2 (1990): 31.
1946
Born, Wolfgang. "William H. Harnett: Bachelor Artist." Magazine of Art 39 (October 1946): 253.
1959
Bouton, Margaret. American Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1959 (Booklet Number One in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 42, color repro. on cover.
1962
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Treasures from the National Gallery of Art, New York, 1962: 144, color repro.
1966
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 2:486, color repro.
1969
Frankenstein, Alfred. After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters 1870-1900. Rev. ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 1969: 15, 84, 86, 178-179.
1970
American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 64, repro.
1975
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 555, no. 843, color repro.
1976
Oja, Carol Jean. "Musical Subjects in the Paintings of William Michael Harnett." M.A. thesis, University of Iowa, 1976: 28, 41, 83, fig. C-10.
1977
Oja, Carol Jean. "The Still-Life Paintings of William Michael Harnett: Their Reflections Upon Nineteenth-Century American Musical Culture." Musical Quarterly 63 (October 1977): 510, 516, 523, fig. 2.
1980
Burke, Doreen Bolger. American Paintings in the Metropolitan Museum (A Catalogue of Works by Artists Born between 1846 and 1864). Vol. 3. New York, 1980: 54-55.
1980
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 169, repro.
1980
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 110, no. 36, color repro.
1981
Williams 1981, detail 149, 174, 176, repro. 177.
1981
Wilmerding, John. "The American Object: Still Life Paintings." In An American Perspective: Nineteenth-Century Art from the Collection of Jo Ann & Julian Ganz, Jr.. Exh. cat. 4 venues. Washington, D.C., 1981: 104-105.
1983
Wilmerding 1983, 111, 115, fig. 102.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 553, no. 840, color repro.
1988
Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 126, no. 40, color repro.
1992
Bolger, Doreen, Marc Simpson, and John Wilmerding, eds. William M. Harnett. Exh. cat. 4 venues. New York, 1992: 187, 269, 275, 294, 297, fig. 126.
1992
Davis, John. "Notes on a Harnett Collection: The 'Mysterious W. J. Hughes." Archives of American Art Journal 32, no. 2 (1992): 18, 24, repro. 23.
1992
American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 193, repro.
1992
National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 243, repro. (not in 1995 rev. ed.).
1993
Kloss, William. "Review of Doreen Bolger, Marc Simpson, and John Wilmerding, eds. William M. Harnett." Winterthur Portfolio 28 (Summer/Autumn 1993): 183.
1993
Studing, Richard. Shakespeare in American Painting: A Catalogue from the Late Eighteenth Century to the Present. Rutherford, New Jersey, 1993: 75, repro. 76.
1996
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 267-271, color repro.

Conservation Notes

The support is a commercially prepared mahogany panel (1.5 cm thick). Stenciled on the reverse is: "G.ROWNEY & CO./ PREPARED / MAHOGANY PANEL / LONDON/ 52 RATHBONE PLACE." The ground appears to consist of two dense, white, extremely smooth ground layers, with a thin green layer sandwiched between. Extensive underdrawing, probably in pencil, is visible in strong light and with infrared reflectography. The forms of the still life were laid over the dark background in washes of thinned color, with subsequent layers of more opaque paint and glazes defining details and creating depth. The varnish is unevenly applied and has become slightly discolored.

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