EVERY OBJECT RIGHTLY SEEN
We learn nothing rightly until we learn the symbolical character of life. Day creeps after day, each full of facts, dull, strange, despised things, that we cannot enough despise--call heavy, prosaic and desert. The time we seek to kill; the attention it is elegant to divert from things around us. And presently the aroused intellect finds gold and gems in one of these scorned facts--then finds that the day of facts is a rock of diamonds; that a fact is an Epiphany of God. 1 RALPH WALDO EMERSON
The respect for the fact, whether object or place, that characterizes so much American art might easily be mistaken for the famous--or infamous-- American materialism. But Emerson, like the medieval thinkers, saw the fact as the "end or last issue of spirit," and one may speculate, therefore, on the reasons why conceptual realism in America should resemble the late Gothic painting of Jan van Eyck. Originating with Copley, this conceptual mode was inherited by the luminist landscape painters and by a still-life tradition extending almost without interruption or change from Raphaelle Peale ( 1774-1825) (see Ill. 1-9) at the beginning of the century to William Michael Harnett ( 1848-92) at the end (Ill. 13-1). Much American art of the late eighteenth century and of the nineteenth century can in fact be seen as still life, whether a portrait by Copley or a landscape by Lane.
In discussing Vermeer View of Delft, Éienne Gilson has referred to its "actionless existentiality." This quality is precisely what we find in Harnett's works. Alfred Frankenstein has noted, "Place a Harnett still life of the middle 1870's . . . next to a Raphaelle Peale of 1815... and it is impossible to believe that they are separated by two generations, that the one belongs to the era of James Madison and the other to that of U. S. Grant."2