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The Old Violin is one of Harnett's most famous paintings. The subject is deceptively simple; a violin, a sheet of music, a small newspaper clipping, and a blue envelope are shown against a background formed by a green wooden door.

The painting is also a work of multi–layered meanings involving the relationships between illusion and reality, between old and new, and between the momentary and the enduring. At the heart of such meanings is the transience of time, which the artist illustrated by showing signs of wear and age throughout the painting. Even the songs, one from Bellini's La Sonnambula, and the other the popular song "Helas, Quelle Douleur", are concerned with temporal change. But it is the violin itself, now mute, but worn with use and still dusted with rosin, that speaks most evocatively of past pleasures.

More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I, pages 257-266, which is available as a free PDF at


lower left, as address on envelope: W.M.Harnett / 28 East 14th St / New York / Chargé; as postmark on envelope: PARIS / 3 27 / AVRIL / 86


Purchased 1886 at Cincinnati Industrial Exhibition by Frank Tuchfarber, Cincinnati;[1] mortgaged and forfeited 1912 to Atlas National Bank, Cincinnati;[2] sold to William M. Haas, Cincinnati; offered c. 1934-1937 in lieu of a loan payment to Charles Finn Williams [d. 1952], Cincinnati;[3] his wife, Elizabeth R. Williams, Cincinnati; transferred c. 1955-1957 to her son, William J. Williams, Cincinnati; sold 1990 to (James Maroney, New York); purchased 1993 by NGA.

Exhibition History

Thirteenth Cincinnati Industrial Exposition, 1886, unnumbered catalogue.
Minneapolis Industrial Exposition, 1887, no. 102.
Tennessee Centennial Exposition, Nashville, 1897, no. 650.
Exhibition of Paintings from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Finn Williams, Cincinnati Art Museum, 1937, 9, no. 11.
Masterpieces from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Charles F. Williams, Cincinnati Art Museum, 1939, unnumbered catalogue.
"Nature-Vivre" by William M. Harnett. Exhibition of Paintings, Downtown Gallery, New York, 1939, no. 9.
Survey of American Painting, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh, 1939-1940, no. 130.
Illusionism and Trompe l'Oeil, Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, 1949, unnumbered, 32, 65, repro.
The One Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, 1955, no. 68.
Four Centuries of American Art, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 1963-1964, unpaginated, unnumbered.
The Reminiscent Object: Paintings by William Michael Harnett, John Frederick Peto and John Haberle, La Jolla Museum of Art; Santa Barbara Museum of Art, 1965, no. 17.
Highlights--150 Years of American Art, Tangeman Center, University of Cincinnati, 1969.
Look Again, Taft Museum, Cincinnati, 1976, unnumbered catalogue.
The Democratic Art, An Exhibition on the History of Chromolithography in America 1840-1900, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; Chicago Historical Society; The Museum of Our National Heritage, Lexington, Massachusetts, 1979, no. 73a (shown only in Fort Worth).
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, 196, pl. 37.
Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000-2001, unnumbered catalogue, repro.
Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil Painting, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2002-2003, no. 53, color repro.
Audubon to Warhol: The Art of the American Still Life, Philadelphia Museum of Art; Phoenix Art Museum, 2015-2016, (shown only in Philadelphia).

Technical Summary

The support is a finely woven, plain-weave fabric that was lined in 1979. Over a warm, off-white ground, paint was generally applied thinly and in discrete areas that rarely overlap. Significant exceptions are the several foreshortened areas, seen from above, of the side panels of the violin's body; these small perspectival additions were applied over pre-existing painted forms that are still visible in strong light. (Some painted musical notation was covered, for example, by these additions.) Occasional underdrawing (probably in pencil) is evident with infrared reflectography; it reveals that the tuning pegs of the violin were originally drawn loosely and somewhat lower. Highlights were applied with impasto, in contrast to the otherwise predominately smooth surface. Three small paint losses in the lower left quadrant have been inpainted. Several cracks have been filled with glazing. A fine crackle pattern covers most of the background. The varnish has not discolored.


"A Wonderland." The Cincinnati Enquirer (19 September 1886).
"The Art Gallery." Cincinnati Commercial Gazette (16 September 1886)
"At the Exposition Building." St. Paul and Minneapolis Pioneer Press (12 October 1887).
"Auspiciously Opened." St. Paul and Minneapolis Pioneer Press. (1 September 1887).
"The Churches: Pictures at the Exposition Furnish Material for a Sermon." Minneapolis Tribune (12 September 1887).
"Harnett: How George Hulings Lost His Fiddle." Evening Item (Philadelphia)(11 June 1895).
Bolger, Doreen. "Cards and Letters from His Friends': Mr. Hulings' Rack Picture by William Michael Harnett." The American Art Journal 22, 2 (1990): 10, 13, fig. 7.
"Found-A Celebrated American Painting." Mansfield News Journal (Ohio)(3 November 1934).
Robinson, Francis W. "The C.F. Williams Collection on View." Art News XXXV (6 March 1937): 23.
Bulletin of The Cincinnati Art Museum 10, no. 4 (October 1939): 109.
"Harnett Resurrected from the Shadows." Art Digest 13 (1 May 1939): repro. 7.
Born, Wolfgang. "William Michael Harnett: Bachelor Artist." Magazine of Art, Cincinnati Art Museum Edition 39, no. 4 (October 1946): 253.
Born, Wolfgang. Still Life Painting in America. New York. 1947: 34.
The Cincinnati Enquirer (September 17, 1947): 43.
Frankenstein, Alfred. "Harnett, True and False." The Art Bulletin 31, no. 1 (March 1949): 54-55, fig. 15.
Frankenstein, Alfred. "New Harnett Discoveries." Magazine of Art 44 (February 1951): 63-64.
Canaday, John. Metropolitan Seminars in Art, Portfolio 2, Realism. New York, 1958: 5, 6, 19, no. 13, illus.
Canaday, John. "Metropolitan Seminars in Art, Previewed." Art in America 46 (1958): 73, repro.
Munro, Thomas. "Painting." Reprint from The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago, 1958: 38, repro.
Neumeyer, Alfred. "Harnett, William Michael." In Kindlers Malerei Lexikonedited by Germain Bazin, et al. 6 vols. Zürich, 1964-1971. Zürich, 1966: 3:59-63, repro. 62.
Frankenstein, Alfred. "The American Nineteenth Century, Part 2: Saloon Salons." Art News 67 (September 1968): 45.
Frankenstein, Alfred. After the Hunt: William Harnett and other American Still Life Painters 1870-1900. Rev. ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California, 1969: ix, 3, 15, 34, 71, 73-78, 89, 125, 133, 146-147, 154, 159, 171, 177, pls. 60, 62, 62a.
Frankenstein, Alfred. "Mr. Hulings' Rack Picture." Auction 2 (February 1969): 6-9, repro. 9.
Novak, Barbara. American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience. New York, 1969: 234.
Cooperative Extension Service, North Dakota State University. "Designer--The Family Scene." (September 1970): 19, fig. 3.
Frankenstein, Alfred. The Reality of Appearance: Trompe l'Oeil Tradition in American Painting. Exh. cat. 4 venues. Greenwich, Connecticut, 1970: 88.
Findsen, Owen. "William Harnett's [sic] 'Cincinnati Enquirer' 1888, the Lost Is Found." The Enquirer Magazine (Sunday, 9 May 1971): 17.
Gerdts, William H., and Russell Burke. American Still Life Painting. New York, 1971: 142-143, 145, 158, fig. 10-9.
Goodrich, David L. Art Fakes in America. New York, 1973: 16-17.
Mastai, M.L. D'Otrange. Illusion in Art, Trompe l'Oeil: A History of Pictorial Illusionism. New York, 1975: 293, 295, 313, pl. 335.
Oja, Carol Jean. "Musical Subjects in the Paintings of William Michael Harnett." Master's thesis, University of Iowa, 1976: 22, 23, 29, 32, 47-48, 60-65, 80, 87-89, 91, 94, repro. 105.
Brown, Milton W. American Art to 1900. New York, 1977: 542, pl. 672.
Oja, Carol Jean. "The Still Life Paintings of William Michael Harnett Their Reflections Upon Nineteenth Century American Musical Culture." Musical Quarterly 63 (October 1977): 514, 518-519, 523.
Gorman, Joan H. Jefferson David Chalfant 1856-1931. Exh. cat. Brandywine River Museum; Newark Museum, New Jersey. Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, 1979: 12.
Marzio, Peter C. The Democratic Art: Chromolithography 1840-1900. Boston, 1979: 73-76, no. 73a.
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: 56, 173, 275.
Barry, Roxana. "Plane Truths: Nineteenth Century American Trompe l'Oeil Painting." Art and Antiques 4 (September-October 1981): repro. 106.
Gerdts, William H. Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life 1801-1939. Exh. cat. Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa. Columbia, Missouri, and London, 1981: 187.
Wilmerding 1983, 221.
"Fooling the Eye." Southwest Art 22 (September 1990): 85, repro.
Bolger, Doreen, Marc Simpson, and John Wilmerding, eds. William M. Harnett. Exh. cat. MMA; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; NGA. New York, 1992: 23, 30-32, 35, 42, 52, 66, 68, 94-95, 102, 163, 219, 297-298, pl. 37.
Davis, John. "Notes on a Harnett Collector: The 'Mysterious W.J. Hughes.'" Archives of American Art Journal 32, 2 (1992): 22, 25.
Strazdes, Diana. American Paintings and Sculpture to 1945 in the Carnegie Museum of Art. New York, 1992: 226.
Kloss, William. "Review of Doreen Bolger, Marc Simpson, and John Wilmerding, eds. William M. Harnett." Winterthur Portfolio 28 (Summer/Autumn 1993): 183.
Lubin, David M. Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America. New Haven, 1994: 308.
Lucie-Smith, Edward. American Realism. New York, 1994: 44, repro.
National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of A rt, Washington, Rev. ed. Washington, D.C.,1995: 243, repro.
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: 257-266, color repro.
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 318-319, no. 257, color repro.
Leja, Michael. Looking Askance: Skepticism and American Art from Eakins to Duchamp. Berkeley, 2004: 128, 134, 139, 271 note 5; color plate 13.

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