Object of Desire

More Objects of Desire can be found here.

William Michael Harnett:
Master of Deception

by Sarah Hall,
Director of Curatorial Affairs

Probably the finest American painting at Clayton, this modest trompe l’oeil still life measures less than eight by ten inches unframed. The French expression trompe l’oeil means to “fool the eye” and it is used to describe this style of extreme illusionism in painting, which has its roots in 17th-century Holland, but experienced a resurgence of decidedly American character in the late 19th century.

  Harnett Still Life

William Michael Harnett (1848–1892), Still Life, 1890. Oil on panel.


The leader of that resurgence was William Michael Harnett (1848–1892), who made a name for himself in the late 1870s through his death, as the quintessential American trompe l’oeil painter. It is said that when certain Harnetts were publicly exhibited, guards were required to prevent onlookers from trying to remove objects from the painting.

Often viewers were “sure” that some aspects of the painting had to be real objects pasted to the surface. It seemed the only way people could convince themselves that the works were painted illusions was to actually touch them, and so, in less rarefied exhibition venues—like saloons or men’s clubs—people might try to lift a scrap of newspaper from the painting, or feel a nail head painted with such perfection of texture and shading that it seemed real.

The Frick’s painting, while painted with the crisp illusionism characteristic of Harnett’s work, does not depict the objects at life size, and because of this it does not qualify as a true “deception,” as paintings made to deliberately trick viewers were sometimes called.


Detail showing burning embers in meerschaum pipe.

  What do the objects in the Frick painting tell us? There’s a pewter candlestick with the candle nearly burned down atop a frayed red book. There’s a stoneware jug, and laying across the front of the table draping into the foreground is a page of aged sheet music. Atop the music is a turquoise box of tobacco and an upended, still smoldering meerschaum pipe—you can see the tiny glowing embers inside.

A book with dark green edged pages is set spine up, like a tent, behind these objects. A flute with a cracked ivory mouthpiece creates a diagonal sweep from between the pipe and tobacco to a book bound in white vellum with red embellishment on its cover. It leans against two other worn volumes. In the foreground several matches and or pieces of tinder and ash are scattered. 

The objects, like those in many traditional Dutch still-life paintings, allude in a general way to the passing of time. All of the objects show age and wear—the sheet music is yellowed and torn, the book at the left has a tattered binding, the glaze on the jug is chipped around the top edge, the ivory of the flute is cracked, and yet the glowing pipe implies that these objects are still in use. The shallow space and microscopic attention to surface and light creates an arrangement similar to that of a museum vitrine—specific things arranged in a specific way to create meaning. These objects become a way of measuring life.

If the objects we live with create portraits of ourselves—what sort of portrait is created by the objects in a Harnett? It’s a masculine, comfortable, nostalgic world.The objects evoke a sense of culture and comfort—although not necessarily of wealth—a culture of music and literature and well-worn homey objects that provide solace and nurture contemplation.

In fact, some of these objects were used by Harnett again and again, not simply as functional studio props, but as meaningful signifiers of the values Harnett espoused. In the Frick’s Still Life, the blue and white jug and at least one of the books (the leaning book at right with the white binding, which is identifiable in other paintings as a 1503 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy) are included in Harnett’s painted tribute to his favorite studio objects—the 1892 work, Old Models. In fact, the titles of works like Old Models, My Gems (1888), and The Professor’s Old Friends (1891), indicate a real attachment to these objects.


Detail showing chipped glaze on jug.


Detail of right side of composition, showing cracked ivory mouthpiece of flute, and the leaning book, which is likely a copy of Danté’s Divine Comedy.

Harnett’s final illness was diagnosed in 1888, and his artistic output was much reduced until his death October 29, 1892. Harnett died at the age of 44. His last years interrupted by illness (kidney disease) and frequent hospitalization. In the last four years of his life he completed only nine paintings, of which the Frick picture is one. Perhaps the tendency toward nostalgia in his works was exacerbated by his own sense of working with limited time.

William Michael Harnett (1848-1892) was born in Ireland and was about the same age as Henry Clay Frick, and was brought to Philadelphia by his parents when he was quite young. Harnett achieved a certain level of success in his lifetime—earning enough money from his early time painting in Philadelphia to spend six years working and studying in Europe. But his interests and abilities were never in sync with notions of what made a serious artist. The ability to closely mimic reality and create illusions with paint has always been a double-edged accomplishment.

The technical skill that induces “oohs” and “ahhs” can also conversely create a backlash of criticism. What is the point of mimicking reality? Isn’t art supposed to elevate and enlighten? Shouldn’t the artist’s most powerful gifts be imagination and intellect—not simply imitative trickery? American painter George Inness, famous for his expressive landscapes, was a vocal critic of extreme realism, famously stating, “Imitation is worthless.” Consequently Harnett’s was always a popular and populist art—not completely accepted by the powers of the art world. His works were as often displayed in department stores, jewelry shops, saloons, and industrial exhibitions as they were in respected art exhibition spaces.

Still life, however, by its very nature—representing recognizable, material objects—seems to embody a characteristically American directness that made it particularly popular in the United States, while in Europe, still life was typically considered inferior to more important subjects like history, mythology, or portraiture.  Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825), son of Charles Willson Peale of the famous Philadelphia Peale family, is often credited with being the first American painter specializing in still life.

Sitting room at Clayton

Sitting room at Clayton with Harnett’s Still Life visible at top right. Photograph by Childs Frick c. 1900. Courtesy Frick Collection/Frick Art Reference Library.

  It’s not difficult to imagine why still life became popular in19th-century America—its basis in materiality exudes a no-nonsense, fact-based, egalitarian quality, appropriate to a prosperous young country, just beginning to build cities and furnish homes. You don’t need a classical education to understand still-life painting.

Concurrently, as championed by Raphaelle Peale and his famous family, who were also naturalists, still life can be understood as an extension of scientific exploration—a way of experimenting with perception, optics, and illusions.

After his death in 1892, Harnett quietly vanished from the public mind until the 1930s, when his work was rediscovered. In a 1955 catalogue for the Centennial Exhibition of Pennsylvania Painters it was said that Harnett was, “Completely forgotten up to two decades ago, his pictures became the objectives of a kind of uranium hunt of the art world, with at times startling valuations placed upon those found.”

Documentation of this little painting’s arrival in the collection has not been found; although the original purchase price of $1,000 (about $25,000 in today’s money) was recorded. It is unusual for a painting of that comparative value to have left so small a paper trail in the collection files. Stenographer Lottie Risher Tyler organized Frick’s art files around 1905 and simply noted that this work was purchased in “1895 or earlier.”The artist’s calling card is still adhered to the back of the panel and reads W. M. Harnett Studio 13, 1227 Broadway, Third Floor, New York. The existence of the card might indicate that the piece was purchased directly from the artist—which would mean between 1890 and 1892.

To see more examples of Harnett’s work:




An invaluable source on all facets of Harnett’s life and work:

William M. Harnett, the catalogue for the 1992 exhibition co-organized by The Metropolitan

Museum of Art, Amon Carter Museum, and The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.