William Michael Harnett
American, born Ireland, 1848–1892
For Sunday's Dinner
1888

Oil on canvas
94.3 x 53.6 cm (37 1/8 x 21 1/8 in.)
Signed, lower left: "Harnett/1888"
Wilson L. Mead Fund, 1958.296

Still-life painter William Harnett excelled at trompe l'oeil, or "tricking the eye," and used the device in both his vertical and tabletop compositions. In For Sunday's Dinner, a rooster hangs from a string with its throat cut and most of its feathers plucked—a few remaining downy spots contrast the puckered, pimpled flesh. The metal door hinges on the right side of the canvas frame the rooster and echo its form. Likewise, the fixture that has slipped from its place covering the keyhole reveals the scarred wood beneath, just as the removal of the rooster's feathers has uncovered its unappealing skin. Both the painting's title and the rough, blemished surface of the door suggest a country dinner rather than a sophisticated urban affair.

Trompe l'oeil techniques were used in still life as soon as it became an established genre during the 16th century. After the 1830s, trompe l'oeil painting was especially popular with artists in Great Britain and the United States, particularly in Philadelphia, a cultural center in the new nation. During the first half of the century, North American artists confronted a lack of opportunities for formal training and limited audiences for their work. By producing such lifelike imagery, they sought to attract public attention to the fine arts as well as to prove their skills as artists.

William Michael Harnett
American, born Ireland, 1848–1892
The Old Violin
1887

Color lithograph on paper
880 x 585 mm
Mr. and Mrs. T. Stanton Armour Fund, 1994.724

Many of Harnett's works were reproduced and sold widely as prints. This chromolithographic print depicts his 1887 painting The Old Violin, which created the illusion of a violin hanging in front of a wooden door so effectively that viewers reportedly attempted to remove the instrument from the wall. As popular as the magical trompe l'oeil technique would be with the public, art critics had mixed reactions to it. A few echoed the opinions of the British artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, who earlier in the century had led an attack upon the genre's "exact copying" and "low" subjects, believing that it threatened an established ideal of art as a thing of truth and beauty.

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