PAINTER William M. Harnett might be considered something of a 19th-century revolutionary. His still lifes of familiar subjects were so realistic that they seemed to enter another dimension, and startled his viewers with their tactile quality. Once largely forgotten, he is now being rediscovered and given his due.
Harnett was born in 1848 in Ireland, but was taken to Philadelphia as a child and remained in the United States for most of his career. In his own time he was popular but somewhat scorned by those who felt themselves more genuine artists, who thought still-life painting a secondary sort of art, and looked on Harnett as a man who was able only to exhibit at fairs and in markets and pubs. They also saw him as something of a trickster.
These critics were wrong, and appreciation of Harnett's work began to grow in the 1930s. He is now considered a master of trompe-l'oeil (that which deceives the eye) and it is this talent which makes his paintings so unique. They are so vivid, almost tangible, that even now it is hard to be sure that the fiddle with its bow hanging on the door is not real, that the sheet of paper with its torn corner cannot be torn again. Inevitably the question arises, "What makes this illusion, and, beyond that, what i s illusion?"
In the latter part of the 19th century there was a considerable amount of interest, both philosophical and religious, as to the nature of illusion and reality. In his "Principle of Psychology" (1890), William James wrote: "Whatever excites and stimulates our interest is real; whenever an object so appeals to us that we turn to it, accept it, fill our mind with it, or practically take account of it, so far is it real for us, and we believe it." In this connection people would speak of "the fallacy of the senses," and consider how much "trickery" should be within the province of art. Whether it was legitimate to portray an object as actual, as Harnett did - this was dishonorable somehow, in that it might "demean art." Artists who fooled the public were like con men, some felt. It was an age of materialism and acquisition after the ravages of the Civil War. To paint still lifes was desirable; the problem was, how far they could or should go.
It was not a new issue. The Greeks had argued about this in ancient times, as the classically educated were well aware. The story of a contest in 424 BC between two artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasios, used to be recalled when illusionism in painting was discussed in connection with Harnett and John F. Peto (1854-1907), who did the same sort of work. On that famous occasion, the ancient Greeks actually had a contest to determine which artist could most deceive his viewers.
It is not thought that Harnett was doing his illusionism in such a deliberate way, though he certainly did employ methods that were extremely artful. He would paint a door, for instance, which appeared at first sight to be closed, but was, in fact, slightly ajar, thus giving the objects hanging from it a three-dimensional look.
The great painting family of the Peales had also been adept masters of trompe-l'oeil, Charles Wilson Peale's "Staircase Group" (1795) being famous for its extraordinarily lifelike effect. In this large canvas Peale (1741-1827) shows his sons Raphaelle and Titian going up a narrow winding staircase, whose frame was actually a real door frame, with the lowest step also a true step. The figures are life-size, and it does seem as though we are looking at two young men climbing some stairs.
Raphaelle Peale himself did a number of remarkable trompe-l'oeil pictures, which were of course well known in his city, Philadelphia, so that Harnett must have been accustomed to the idea of illusionism when he set about painting there.
The Harnett family found life hard in Philadelphia, especially after the father died. William, the future artist, was still a child and obliged to help his mother and sisters by becoming an errand boy. Soon he began to study art at night schools, both there and in New York, and aside from becoming a master of drawing, learned engraving. He did still lifes because he could not afford models; he painted what he had about him. When Harnett sold a study of a beer mug and a pipe for $50 - a princely sum to hi m at that time - he knew he could really devote himself to painting.
He seldom did natural objects like flowers and fruit, though these themes are not wholly lacking from his canvases, but used man-made artifacts - books, flutes, musical scores, currency notes, and inkwells. His notes were so perfect in their meticulous detail that he was even suspected of being a counterfeiter. An exception to this usual choice of subjects is found in his pictures of game: hare and birds, hanging up, again almost unnaturally realistic. Such themes were popular with sportsmen, who were no t concerned with art snobbery or biased against still lifes as only interesting to artisans and parvenus. This attitude was not just a prejudice of young America. In the 18th century, the artists of the British Royal Academy, including Sir Joshua Reynolds and Benjamin Haydon, had looked down on still lifes, apparently unaware of the great Dutch masterpieces in this field.
Harnett worked often on a very small format, and liked to use a variety of almost geometric shapes: squares, circles, and so on; in this he seems to show the influence of Thomas Eakins, with whom he had studied in Philadelphia. Once established, and financially secure, Harnett went to Europe for six years, afterward returning to New York. He made his home there, exhibiting in all sorts of humble and unlikely places, even restaurants and shops. His contemporary, Peto, worked in much the same way, though i n a more lighthearted vein. Their work appears remarkably similar, so much so that for some years it was imagined they were the same person.
People often wanted to touch Harnett's pictures, thinking they must be the real object, trying for instance to take down a fiddle and bow, which he showed hanging on a door. Sometimes a policeman had to be posted by one of his works to protect it from such aggressive curiosity, but today, though no officer of the law stands by, the impulse remains. One desires to handle the images to be convinced that they are only paintings. Of course, we tell ourselves, those letters in the rack were put there by a bru sh, but the trompe-l'oeil persists. In his own way, Harnett was a genius.
The paintings shown here are among Harnett's most well known - the violin with its wonderful mellow colors, the ebony piccolo, the horse shoe (something he often painted), the sheet music, so exact that we can even read the title, and the artist's own calling card stuck in a crack. The cracks in the half-door, the jutting nails, casting their slight shadows, the long majesty of the bow from which we realize will come enchanting airs - all these objects create their own spell, their own intense delight.
Harnett did a great many table-top arrangements, each of them similar yet unique, most of them crowded and in apparent disorder, but actually arranged with care. As a rule they are dark in tone, subdued, and modest, yet reveal cultivated tastes, a love of the arts.
In "Music and Literature," the opened, upright pages of the book in the foreground are an absolute tour de force as sheer painting. And here, too, is a flute, reminding us that he was a flautist himself, and must have loved depicting his own instrument.
Harnett's world was at once on a small, selective scale and of universal scope, embracing vast concepts and suggesting them through these illusionist paintings, which awaken us to something far beyond illusion. The "William M. Harnett" exhibit will be at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, July 18 through Oct. 18; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Nov. 14 through Feb. 14, 1993; and at the National Gallery of Art, March 14 through June 13, 1993.