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 https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/american-paintings-19th-century-part-1.pdf