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William M. Harnett (American, born Ireland, 1848–1892),
Le Figaro , 1880
oil on canvas, 6 7/8 x 5 7/8 in.; 17.46 x 14.92 cm
Museum Purchase, 1961.89

Harnett was the greatest practitioner of American trompe l’oeil (fool-the-eye) painting during the nineteenth century. In this particular class of painting, objects are depicted with photographic realism, resulting in a visual deception intended to “fool” the viewer. While trompe l’oeil paintings found favor with the general public — they were often displayed at fairs and in saloons — the art establishment viewed them with suspicion, believing the works mere “trickery” devoid of artistic inspiration. However, these paintings are not merely still lifes, but portraits. In Le Figaro, the French newspaper and pipe tobacco, discarded as if in mid-smoke, indicate a male of international and intellectual pursuits. The smoldering tobacco, the "clutter," which is actually carefully arranged, and the paper that is, tantilizingly, almost readable, seem as if someone had just left them there.

When Harnett was an infant, his family moved from Ireland to Philadelphia, where, around 1865, eh first developed skills as an engraver and attended evening classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He moved to New York City in 1871 and began etching silver jewelry. He also studied at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design, where he first exhibited his still-life painting in 1875. After some success selling his still lifes, he set out for Europe in early 1880, and returned to New York in 1885, where he resided until his death six years later.

Harnett's still lifes are filled with bric-a-brac from the past, of the kinds one might find in a Victorian parlor. At the same time they appeal to the most modern experiences--photographic realism and the icnreasing complexity of the everyday world.

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