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.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I, which is available as a free PDF at https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/american-paintings-19th-century-part-1.pdf
lower left, WMH in ligature: WMHARNETT. / 1888; reverse: 2/88
Probably (Gimbel Brothers, Philadelphia), by 20 January 1920; probably sold 1920 to William J. Hughes [1863-1938], Washington, D.C.; his estate; sold June 1939 to (Downtown Gallery, New York); sold January 1942 to Richard A. Loeb, New York; sold 1956 to (Downtown Gallery, New York); purchased 7 May 1957 by NGA.
- Harnett Centennial Exhibition, Downtown Gallery, New York, 1948, no. 15.
- The Four Arts Ball, Exhibition in honor of The Greater Trenton Symphony Association, New Cultural Center of New Jersey, Trenton, October 1965 (one day).
- In Memoriam, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, unnumbered checklist.
- 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).
- Peindre l'Amerique. Les artistes du Nouveau Monde 1830-1900, Fondation de l'Hermitage, Lausanne, 2014, no. 24, repro.
- 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.
- Born, Wolfgang. "William H. Harnett: Bachelor Artist." Magazine of Art 39 (October 1946): 253.
- 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.
- Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Treasures from the National Gallery of Art, New York, 1962: 144, color repro.
- 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.
- 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.
- American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 64, repro.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 555, no. 843, color repro.
- 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.
- 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.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 169, repro.
- 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.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 110, no. 36, color repro.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: detail 149, 174, 176, repro. 177.
- 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.
- Wilmerding 1983, 111, 115, fig. 102.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 553, no. 840, color repro.
- 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.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 193, repro.
- 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.
- 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.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 243, repro. (not in 1995 rev. ed.).
- Kloss, William. "Review of Doreen Bolger, Marc Simpson, and John Wilmerding, eds. William M. Harnett." Winterthur Portfolio 28 (Summer/Autumn 1993): 183.
- Studing, Richard. Shakespeare in American Painting: A Catalogue from the Late Eighteenth Century to the Present. Rutherford, New Jersey, 1993: 75, repro. 76.
- 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.
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.