William Harnett: Trompe l'Oeil
“A painting has been added to the Art Gallery, which has created a furor....”
“Visitors will need no guide post, they will find it by following the crowd.”
— Cincinnati newspapers, 1886
The Old Violin
The public was fascinated by The Old Violin, the somber trompe l'oeil still life created by William Harnett in 1886. People would reach out to touch the violin or try to grasp the envelope to determine if the objects were real or painted. Thanks to a widely distributed chromolithograph, The Old Violin would become an icon of American art, inspiring a group of illusionist painters—including John F. Peto—to make their own versions.
Peto's Old Violin, with its broken string and damaged body, hangs at a precarious angle, while Harnett's (in better condition) is squarely suspended on the door. Both paintings speak to the effects of time's passage, the nostalgic associations of music, and the interplay between illusion and reality.
Harnett, the undisputed master of illusionism, made the violin and sheet music* the central images of his painting. The music, though torn and stained, glows with light. The two melodies—one from the popular opera La Sonnambula and the other Hélas Quelle Douleur—were admired by the middle class and were often used for instruction and home musicales. Harnett reused the sheet music Hélas Quelle Douleur in several works, including My Gems. The violin's white rosin suggests that while it is old and worn, it is still in use. Perhaps the musician has just played and hung the sheet music and violin (a 1724 "Cremona," the finest instrument in Harnett's large collection) on the battered door. The battered door, aging violin, and worn sheet music were metaphors for life's vicissitudes and the toll they take on us all.
* Music, often thought to be the most elevated of the arts, and musical instruments appear throughout Western art. The violin (related to the ancient lyre played by the gods in mythological painting) was considered a particularly refined instrument, with associations to the great poets and thinkers of the past.
How did Harnett make the objects in The Old Violin look so convincing?
The vertical composition and the shallow space it created were essential to the trompe l'oeil (French for "to fool the eye") effect. By filling the entire canvas with the impenetrable door, Harnett put the objects directly before the viewer, preventing the eye from moving into the work. The sheet music curls forward out of the painting with the violin and bow suspended above it, seemingly beyond the picture surface. Harnett purposely crinkled the edge of the news clipping and envelope to tease people into thinking they were real: several people "attempted the removal of the newspaper scrap with their finger-nails."
Harnett positioned each element in The Old Violin to achieve a precise balance. For example, while the violin hangs slightly off-center, the hinges are bent to frame it perfectly within the overall composition. The instrument bisects the angled sheet music, and the blue envelope echoes the music's tilt. The violin bow lines up exactly with one of the door slats; the news clipping, placed like an exhibition label for the violin, further stabilizes the work.
The three images above show how carefully composed this trompe l'oeil masterpiece is, and how quickly the composition loses its balance when the ring, the clipping, or the envelope are removed.
Other artists would emulate Harnett's taut arrangement of objects on a rough, hinged door, though few achieved his sense of balance or economy. John F. Peto's For the Track makes an intriguing comparison.
Peto suspended a red jockey's cap, a riding crop, an old horseshoe, betting stubs, a ragged picture of a dark horse, and a racetrack flyer (glowing like Harnett's sheet music) on a worn green door. Like Harnett, he included an illegible newspaper clipping and stuck a blue envelope in the frame.
Unlike Harnett's tightly structured, almost spare arrangement, Peto included many more objects in a looser, seemingly random composition.
Peto's palette is brighter than Harnett's. His brushwork, looser and more painterly, calls attention to the artist's touch, always reminding us that this is a painted image and suggesting the artist's presence.
The Old Violin demonstrates Harnett's crisp, linear style. There are virtually no signs of brushwork. He used special tools and techniques to make the hinges, news clipping, twine, and stamp.
The thin twine loop holding the violin is true testament to Harnett's painstaking methods. It is only five inches long, and the artist tweaked hundreds of fine lines in the loop's wet paint with a needlelike tool, producing the coarse-textured appearance.
The hinges were produced in a fairly simple, two-step process. Harnett first added either sand or coarsely ground pigment to brown paint to make a rough underlayer. For the rusty highlights, he pulled a dry brush, touched with orange paint, over the brown surface.
Harnett used bright highlights on the metal ring and a soft circular shadow on the door to lift the ring off the canvas.
To create the newspaper clipping, Harnett first painted narrow blocks of thinned black paint over a white ground. With the dark paint still wet, he used a tiny pointed instrument to trace lines through it, revealing the white underlayer and creating a "typeface" that looked real to the viewer, but was in fact illegible.
The artist used subtle shading and highlights to create the ripples and creases on the smooth blue envelope. He deftly angled and clipped the corner to suggest that the envelope had been stuck into the frame, turning the illusion on end: perhaps the envelope is the only real object here and everything else is painted? To extend the deception even further, Harnett used the self-addressed envelope as his signature for the painting. Harnett seems to be teasing the viewer here: why, after using such painstaking techniques to fool the public, would the artist reassert his identity in such a tangible form?
For the canceled stamp, Harnett first painted a light square with a serrated border, giving each tooth its own delicate highlights and shadow. He then applied a thin layer of brown paint, scraping it with a blunt stylus to make the crossed flags. Next, Harnett used a minute pointed tool to make the almost microscopic engraving lines. He painted the cancellation mark with black and then smudged the entire stamp with his finger. His fingerprint is still visible.
William Harnett: Trompe L'Oeil Master
With European precedents in mind, William Harnett transformed still-life painting in America when he tipped the picture plane on end, hanging objects on a rough-hewn door rather than placing them on the customary table top. Harnett's pictorial innovations—the vertical orientation, his choice of tactile objects, and his painstaking trompe l'oeil techniques—made him the most famous still-life painter in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.
Harnett started out creating still lifes on horizontal surfaces. But he turned away from conventional "feminine" fruit-and-flower themes early in his career, to so-called "masculine" subjects—pipes, books, lamps, writing implements, wild game, or money. His dark palette was also considered masculine.
Born in Ireland in 1848, William Harnett was brought as an infant to Philadelphia, where he grew up in a working class family. As a teenager, he worked as an errand boy and later (like fellow trompe l'oeil artist John Haberle) trained as a silver engraver. In 1866 Harnett began evening classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, learning to draw from plaster casts of antique sculpture.
Surrounded by the everyday objects that appear in his work, John F. Peto (violin at his chin) poses in his studio with friend and fellow artist William Harnett. Peto, an accomplished violinist and cornet player, would paint his own version of the Old Violin in 1890.
In 1869 Harnett moved to New York, where he worked in an engraving shop and attended Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and later the National Academy of Design. There a fellow student described him as "tall, lean, solemn, Celtic, and wise." Harnett made the subtly shaded relief drawing, A Sprig of Plums, while at the Academy. He also began to exhibit and sell paintings.
Harnett returned to Philadelphia in 1876 to paint and exhibit, resuming his studies at the Pennsylvania Academy where he befriended John F. Peto. He would influence Peto, John Haberle, and others with his precise brushwork and his dark-toned subjects arranged on shallow tables or shelves. To enhance the illusion, Harnett would often project one object forward into the viewer's space; usually it was a newspaper, sheet music, or, as in The Banker's Table, an envelope. This compositional "trick" would also play an important role in his vertical still lifes: the shallow space forced objects out of the picture plane, making them real to the viewer, not once-removed painted representations.
An industrious worker, Harnett produced some 250 canvases in his seventeen-year career. While not accepted by critics into art's highest echelon (many of whom considered his work machinelike, lacking artistic inspiration), his paintings were immensely popular with the public, who usually encountered them not in museums or galleries, but in saloons, department stores, and hotel lobbies. By the time William Harnett died at age forty-four in 1892, he was a commercial success.
While most famous for his vertical still lifes of wild game, musical instruments, and paper ephemera, William Harnett is credited with introducing another, more controversial, subject to still life: money. Other artists had included currency in their paintings, but Harnett was the first to focus solely on paper bills and coins, making them look so real that in 1886 he was arrested for counterfeiting. New York law officers seized Five Dollar Bill from the saloon where it hung and demanded that Harnett hand over other "counterfeit" paintings. After viewing the painting, the judge advised that "the development and exercise of a talent so capable of mischief should not be encouraged." Harnett stopped making trompe l'oeil images of money, but another artist, John Haberle, ignored warnings to "stop painting greenbacks" and made it his specialty.
John Haberle was born in 1856 in New Haven, Connecticut, to Swiss immigrant parents. At age fourteen he left school to apprentice for a bookplate designer and engraver, where he learned the precision of hand-and-eye coordination necessary for detailed representation. He also worked at Yale University's Peabody Museum of Natural History, painting display cases and doing odd jobs. In 1884 he entered the National Academy of Design in New York, where he saw trompe l'oeil painting for the first time. Haberle was a skilled draftsman, and this, coupled with his experience as an engraver, prepared him for a career as illusionistic painter.
Haberle exhibited Imitation at the National Academy in 1887, well aware of Harnett's arrest the year before, and although warned by the government, he continued to paint currency. He tried other everyday subjects, including peanuts and school slates.
By 1893, Haberle's eyesight had begun to fade, and with it the precision necessary for highly illusionistic work. He continued to paint, but in a freer, less detailed style.
Haberle died in 1933. His paintings were virtually unknown until 1948, when art historian Alfred Frankenstein discovered thirty of his works. Frankenstein proclaimed Haberle the "greatest American master of the [trompe l'oeil] tradition," calling him "poles apart from Harnett's sumptuosity, careful balances, and well-modeled volumes...and equally far from Peto's sensitivity in the matter of color." Frankenstein recognized something different in Haberle's work: a wit and imagination unmatched by the other artists.
Imitation was John Haberle's first painting of money. Like Harnett, Haberle had worked as an engraver, learning the precision techniques he would need to render the microscopic details of currency. (John F. Peto trained as a painter rather than as an engraver; his money pictures were far less realistic.) When Haberle exhibited Imitation at the National Academy of Design in 1887, Harnett admired it and said that he had "never seen such reproduction anywhere." More so than Harnett, Haberle wanted the forms in his paintings to be read not as close imitations, but as the objects themselves. (For example, type was legible in a work by Haberle but not in one by Harnett.)
Cross-hatching, a technique used by engravers to suggest three-dimensional form, was probably scratched onto the painted bill with a pin or etching needle.
Haberle crisply lettered and numbered the paper money, but colored and creased it using muddy tones to mimic well-worn, grimy currency. The ruffled edges and damaged corner were particularly convincing to viewers who tried to pull the money from the surface.
To give the fifty-cent bill and the dollar bill the appearance of real currency glued on the canvas, Haberle gave them a slight relief quality. He built up the ragged edges to catch light in the same way that pasted dollar bills would, if looked at from the side. (About a similar work, an art critic wrote that Haberle must have glued on the currency and covered it with a "thin scumble of paint.")
Haberle created a close counterfeit in Imitation, but he did not try to hide his identity and signed the work in three ways. First, with his painted photograph, second, with the torn paper label marked J. Haberle on the front of the frame, and third, in the upper right corner, with a cropped-off version of his name, followed by "New Haven, Ct. 1887." He left no doubt about who "perpetrated" the painting. (He also it made clear that the currency was not real by entitling the work Imitation.) The cracked tintype photograph looks real, and to enhance the illusion, Haberle stuck it into the edge of the "frame." Haberle used visible horizontal and vertical strokes and highlights on the picture frame to simulate wood grain.
What made money such a popular subject for these trompe l'oeil artists? Harnett, Peto, and Haberle painted in the last decades of the nineteenth century, a time of materialism and financial empires—the Gilded Age. It was the era of the Greenback party, with its promise to issue great quantities of treasury notes if elected (causing the public anxiety over the stability of the currency). These artists were also playing with the notion of value, by asking viewers to consider the value of, for example, a real five dollar bill versus the value of a five dollar bill rendered as a work of art.