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
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Biography from the Archives of askART
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.
Biography from the Archives of askART
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Lindsay Pollock, The Girl With the Gallery
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
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.
Biography from Turak Gallery of American Art
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.
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
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.
Biography from Caldwell Gallery Hudson
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
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
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
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.
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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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