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William Michael Harnett

 (1848 - 1892)
William Michael Harnett was active/lived in Pennsylvania, New York.  William Harnett is known for trompe l'oeil still life painting, hanging game.

William Michael Harnett

    HAHR-net  speaker-click to hear pronunciation  click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for William Michael Harnett
Born in Clonakilty, Ireland, William Harnett became America's best known "trompe l'oeil" [fool the eye] still-life painter in the later part of the 19th century and is credited with being the most influential in that style and subject matter.  Collectors of this artist need to have a watchful 'eye' because of the many forgeries of Harnett's work.  Likely his most famous painting is After the Hunt, in the collection of The California Palace of the Legion of Honor.

For nearly 50 years after his death, his work was overlooked, but in 1939 an exhibition held by Edith Halpert at her Downtown Gallery in Greenwich Village, New York initiated the public attention that has continued to grow into the 21st century.  Halpert first saw Harnett's work in 1935, when one of his canvases, The Faithful Colt, was brought to her attention.  It was dated 1892, the year of Harnett's death, and depicted the special fondness an owner had to his Colt gun.  Astutely, Halpert negotiated a sale of the painting for $300.00 for the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, a city that had the headquarters of the Colt Firearms Manufacturing Company.  The Colt family had donated a wing to the Museum, and Harnett's painting, of course, fit into the art collection.  Pumped financially over this success and much intriqued by the unique methods of the artist, Halpert put out the word she wanted more Harnetts. 

By 1939 she had over 12 of his paintings in her possession, and then contacted many influential persons such as Alfred Barr, Director of the Museum of Modern Art; Henry McBride, New York Times art critic; Trustees of the Nelson Gallery in Kansas City and of the Smith College Museum in Northampton, Massachusetts.  Collector Nelson Rockefeller purchased three works for the Museum of Modern Art and another for Conger Goodyear, as a retirement gift for serving as MOMA's Chairman of the Board.  All of these purchases were made from the highly successful exhibition Halpert staged in April 1939. 

However, the event, which she later described as her Depression-era savior, the 'ultimate sugar daddy' that 'stabilized her gallery balance sheet', was held with virtually no information about the artist.  "Harnett appeared to have been completely forgotten---no recent books, no articles or scholars had analyzed his extraordinary talent for still life, which rivaled the great Dutch still life painters of the seventeenth century." (Pollock 215)  But thanks to this inital special interest, promotion and research of Edith Halpert and the ensuing five-museum tour of her 1939 gallery show, the name of William Harnett was on the 'road' to having a strong place in American art history.  Another boost for Halpert 'balance sheet' and for Harnett's reputation, came in December 1939, with the purchase from her for $4000.00 of Harnett's last painting, Old Models, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  The work, completed just before his death, had a musical theme as well as some other still-life objects and was large, 4 feet by 2.5 feet, the largest Halpert had ever seen.

Since that introduction of Harnett's work into the New York art world, much has been learned about the artist and significantly more of his paintings have been located.  Many of his works are hanging-game still lifes, but he also painted images of antiques, newspapers, mugs and pipes.  His career lasted only 18 years, 1874 to his death in 1892, and is divided into three periods: 1874 to 1880 when he began to paint in oil; 1880 to 1886 when he was in Munich, Germany; and 1886 to 1892 when he lived in New York.

He moved to Philadelphia with his family as an infant.  His family were artisans.  He was first trained as an engraver of silverware and worked in this occupation from 1865 to 1875 before devoting himself exclusively to still-life painting.  Likely this training as an engraver contributed to the precision and care he took in the details of his paintings.

Harnett attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and in 1871 moved to New York where he studied at the National Academy of Design and the Cooper Union Institute while working as an engraver of table silver.  In 1876, he returned to Philadelphia and became closely associated with John Frederick Peto, who was painting in the same trompe l'oeil style.  Harnett's early works before 1880 were mostly cluttered still life in the tradition of Philadelphian, Raphael Peale.

From 1880 to 1885, Harnett traveled in Europe, studied at the Munich Academy, and painted relatively small paintings.  There, painting precise still lifes, he was disdained as old fashioned by many critics who were getting much more interested in bold colors and looser styles of painting.  He went to Paris where he got a warmer reception and exhibited hanging-game still lifes at the Salon des Beaux Arts.

He returned to the United States until 1886, and then lived and worked in New York until his death.  He had long periods of illness and hospitalization before his premature death in 1892 at age 44.   That year, he went to Arkansas to get relief through the hot springs for his poor health.  In October, he was found in a coma outside his New York City studio at 40 West 30th Street, and he died two days later in a hospital.  He left no will and only five paintings including Old Models, and $500.00 in cash.

He likely produced about five-hundred paintings, but many of these have been lost; also many paintings attributed to him are forgeries including some painted by Peto whose reputation was not as strong as Harnett's.

Lindsay Pollock, The Girl With the Gallery
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for William Michael Harnett
In 1886, Philadelphia artist William M. Harnett was arrested by New York police for displaying one of his paintings.  The charge?  Counterfeiting.  His depiction of a five-dollar bill was so realistic it alarmed law enforcement officials and later provoked a judge to admonish Harnett for wasting his talent on such endeavors.

This notorious painting, Still-Life Five Dollar Bill (1877), is a prime example of trompe l'oeil, an artistic style that visually tricks the onlooker with highly realistic detail.  Now part of the permanent collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Harnett's painting portrays a five-dollar bill on a tabletop.  The bill is torn and stained with age, and seems so real viewers feel tempted to pick it up.

To achieve that effect, Harnett painstakingly reproduced the most minute details, such as the intricate artwork of the President's portrait and around the edge of the bill, the color variations portraying smudges and stains on the bill, the wood grain of the tabletop, and the contrast between the bill and the table surface.

The hyper-realistic painting of money was, and remains, a uniquely American art form.  Harnett was the first artist in the 19th century to create paintings in trompe l'oeil style with money as the primary subject.  His art inspired a number of other illusionist painters--including John Haberle and John Peto--to do likewise.  Chagrined by this "desecration" of legal tender, Congress passed a bill in 1909 prohibiting all non-official realistic representations of money.

Although he never painted money again, Harnett went on to create other similarly realistic still-lifes, including After the Hunt and The Old Violin (1886).  Viewers were fascinated with his work, and often reached out to touch the instrument to see if it was real.  Although some critics complained his art was "mere trickery," Harnett eventually became one of the leading illusionist painters of his time and his work influenced many modern artists, including Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol.

Written and submitted by Mary Owen-Larson

Biography from Turak Gallery of American Art
During his early maturity, Harnett established a pattern of working in clusters of subjects, which he would amplify and develop over the rest of his career. But, more important, at this time he created a new still-life imagery for himself and for American art. By examining the core group of his paintings from 1877 to 1880, we may glimpse his special process of testing variations, of pictorial inquiry and decision making. These pictures are an index not only of his artistic thought and style but also of many larger currents in American culture during the last third of the nineteenth century.

Following his early academic study in Philadelphia and New York and his work as a silver engraver, Harnett returned to Philadelphia in 1876 and to further classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The experience and technical expertise he had gained in those two preeminent urban center of commerce, plus the stimulating forces of the Philadelphia artistic tradition from the Peales to Thomas Eakins, now brought Harnett to the threshold of his first significant original works.

With almost no precedent in American art, "The Banker's Table of 1877" is startling in its level of quality and choice of subject matter. Decisively shifting from the imagery of Raphaelle Peale's fruit compositions, John F. Francis's dessert tables, and Severin Roesen's flower bouquets, Harnett, virtually alone, introduced an imagery for a post-Darwinian world, a turbulent America in the strains of Reconstruction, industrial growth, and political and financial corruption. Nature's bounty was now exchanged for material possessions and wealth. Contemplation of the expansive landscape yielded to concentration on the private corners of the desk and study. Harnett's taste celebrated not the senses of the palate but the inclinations towards leisure and business.

A summary inventory of items included in his compositions of the late 1870s offers a revealing indication of what the artist selected as significant from the world about him. Old books, letters, quill pens, ink bottles, wax sticks and seals, candles, letter cases, and sheets of paper speak of familiar routines; coins and greenbacks, letter racks and business cards, of personal commerce; tobacco canisters, pipes, matches, and newspapers, of domestic pleasures; table knives, mugs or stone jars and biscuits, of mealtime occupations; and flutes and sheets of music, of quiet

John Wilmerding, "Notes of Change, Harnett's Paintings of the Late 1870s," from William M. Harnett, Published by the Amon Carter Museum - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York, 1992, page 149

Biography from Caldwell Gallery Hudson
William Michael Harnett, born in 1848, studied art extensively and became one of America's leading trompe l'oeil painters of the 19th century.  Harnett began his studies at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, and then took night classes at Copper Union in 1871, continued at National Academy of Design in 1874.  He later traveled to London, Frankfurt and Munich in the early 1880s.

Harnett influenced a generation of artists despite his critically unpopular position and maintained a large audience and patrons.

Harnett's first exhibit was at the Downtown Gallery, in NYC, 1929.

His work can be grouped into two distinct categories.  Harnett's earlier work (1874-80) consisted of small still lifes with intricate texture, a skill he developed as a silver engraver years before.  In 1879, The Artist's Letter Rack came to represent the second stage of Harnett's painting career.  A bulletin board covered in memorabilia mixes flat objects in shallow space to create illusionism. Harnett also received great acclaim for After the Hunt (1885), shown in the Paris Salon.

Harnett died in 1892.

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About  William Michael Harnett

Born:  1848 - Clonakilty, Ireland
Died:   1892 - New York City
Known for:  trompe l'oeil still life painting, hanging game

Essays referring to
William Michael Harnett

Paris pre-1900
Trompe l'Oeil Painting