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