Memento Many

Article excerpt

Think about still-life painting, and you will probably think about fruit and flowers. Most still-life paintings depict something that is (or was) alive until plucked and placed as a prop for a painting. In the case of Still Life with Universal Gazetteer, 1878, by William Michael Harnett (1848-1892), none of the objects was ever living. They were all fabricated by people, and their function was to support commercial and intellectual human life, but the things did not have lives of their own. Or did they?

Let's look, one by one, at the objects in this work. On the far left is the handle of a pen or brush. In front of it is a ceramic ink bottle. In the deepest background lies a roll of paper currency, and at the edge of the table, in the closest foreground is a single coin. Just behind and to the right of the coin rests a well-worn book, Universal Gazetteer, Vol I.

A universal gazetteer was a geographic encyclopedia of the world, containing maps, descriptions of places and peoples, and engraved illustrations. There were numerous authors and publishers who produced universal gazetteers, generally beginning around the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Gazetteer in Harnett's painting does not indicate its author on the spine, but the book was clearly well enjoyed over time, as evidenced by its scuffed edges.

Resting diagonally on top of the Gazetteer is a stamped and postmarked envelope, neatly torn open straight across its top edge. On the face of the envelope are the discernable ends of words, "ale, "reet" and "elphia," indicating the letter might have been sent to someone whose name ended in "ale" in Philadelphia (see detail at far right). Possibly fitting the description of the recipient was an English "picture dealer," Denis Gale, who relocated to Philadelphia around 1872. Harnett was known to personalize his otherwise objective-seeming still lives with objects belonging to those who commissioned his works.

On top of the envelope lies a letter written in black ink on white paper. Because the folds of the letter appear loose and partly open, the viewer might deduce it arrived in the accompanying envelope, and that it has already been read. Harnett's ability to paint fine detail is borne out in this work; some of the words, which have a business-like tone, are legible even today, more than 120 years later.

Harnett was born in Ireland, but moved at age 1 with his family to Philadelphia. He began his artistic training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Harnett also was employed at a young age, due to his father's untimely death, as an engraver of decorative patterns on silver service. At age 21, in 1869, he went to New York as an engraver for Tiffany and Company, and attended the Cooper Union Free School and the National Academy of Design in the evenings. He later traveled in Europe, particularly Munich (where he stayed four years) and Paris.

Harnett was one of the earliest American practitioners of the technique known in French as "trompe l'oeil" (pronounced tromp-LOY) or "trick the eye" painting. Such paintings are so realistic that the eye is "tricked" into thinking the objects literally protrude off the plane of the canvas and into the space of the viewer. Various European artists had been painting super-realistically since the 1500s, but Harnett and his colleague John Peto (1854-1907) popularized it in the United States.

His work was indeed popular with the public, but not with the critics, who panned his subject matter as too mundane. Because it was so realistic in nature, critics saw his painting, ironically, as imitative of photography. He sold his work in department stores and saloons, but not through important national or international exhibitions. His lack of popularity with the critics was partly because in the late 1800s, the subject of still life was considered the lowest class of painting, ranking well below portraits, landscapes and grand historic paintings. …