William Michael Harnett

The American painter William Michael Harnett (1848-1892) was his era's leading trompe l'oeil still-life painter.

William Harnett was born on Aug. 10, 1848, in County Cork, Ireland, and taken to Philadelphia by his parents when he was a child. Harnett learned the engraver's trade and found employment as a silver engraver. When he was 19, he attended night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Two years later he moved to New York, where he worked for jewelry firms during the day and studied painting at the National Academy of Design and the Cooper Union at night.

A still-life painter from the start, Harnett was not tormented by dreams of artistic grandeur. In an age when many portrait painters wished to paint historical subjects, he was happy to paint his cabbage and, according to legend, eat it too. His first picture of a pipe and a beer mug not only was accepted at the National Academy's annual exhibition but was sold for a welcome $50. His future course was clear: he had hit upon a popular vein, and with rate single-mindedness he stayed with it all his life.

Harnett returned to Philadelphia and, between 1873 and 1879, sold enough pictures to go to Europe. His work was appreciated by the Europeans. While abroad he painted After the Hunt. His greatest success, it is a startling, realistic rendering of an old barn door, dead game birds, a hunting horn, a shotgun, a powder horn, and a Tyrolean hat.

In 1886 Harnett returned to New York and exhibited The Old Violin at the National Academy that year. From then on he lived a moderately successful, if uneventful, life; his pictures sold steadily, though at modest prices.

Harnett's art was undoubtedly influenced by his Philadelphia predecessor Raphael Peale, but he carried American trompe l'oeil (as this style, which seeks to "fool the eye, " is known) to new heights. He probably found inspiration for some of his effects in the 17th-century Dutch still lifes he had seen abroad.

Harnett's work, and that of other painters in the trompe l'oeil school, has an appeal beyond art: people who do not respond to other kinds of painting like it. Trompe l'oeil is intriguing because it is fascinatingly close to visual reality. Harnett gave the nonart public pegs on a wall so real that people tried to hang their hats on them, and dollar bills that they tried to pick up. The seemingly naive Americanism of his work is one of his greatest illusions, but he played all his tricks with the consummate skill of a magician. On his death on Oct. 29, 1892, he left few pictures and very little money.


Further Reading on William Michael Harnett

A good sampling of reproductions is in Harnett's Nature-vivre (1939), compiled from an exhibition in New York. The basic book on Harnett is Alfred Frankenstein, After the Hunt (1953; rev. ed. 1969), which gives a fascinating account of the whole school of American trompe l'oeil painters. See also Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century (1969).