WILLIAM M. HARNETT Irish-American (1848 - 1892)
William Michael Harnett is considered one of the premier 19th century trompe l'oeil still life painters. His work often depicted paper: currency, sheet music, hand written notes as well as books, musical instruments and pipes arranged in shallow tableaus. His expertise as a painter elevated these simple subjects to a higher level, inspiring many artists who came after him to master the technique as well.
Born in County Cork, Ireland amidst the country's disastrous potato famine of the mid-1800s, Harnett's family emigrated to the United States and settled in Philadelphia. He became a U.S. citizen in 1868, and began his career as an engraver working with steel, copper, silver and wood. He soon enrolled in night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and, after relocating to New York, at the prestigious Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design.
Harnett returned to Europe in 1880, to further his art education. For the next two years, he traveled through London and Paris, and spent the following four in Munich. It was during this time that he produced what would become one of his most famous works entitled "After the Hunt." An imposing six feet tall, it features the tools and dead game of a hunter, all nailed to a wooden door with burnished brass hinges, and utilizes the finest and most effective of Harnett's trompe l'oeil skills. An equally notable work, "Still Life - Violin and Music (Music and Good Luck)," soon followed, capturing a more whimsical tone with its depiction of old curiosities including a violin and sheet music.
Over the course of his seventeen year career, William Harnett produced 250 still life paintings of items so precisely drawn that upon his death in 1892, one obituary writer noted that the artist "copied in oil with the accuracy of a camera." Harnett once stated that he wanted his paintings to tell a story by touching upon the simplicity of everyday life and its images with clarity, warmth and realism. In 1992, Harnett finally achieved the acceptance and respectability that eluded him for so long when New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted a retrospective of his work to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death. The exhibit underlined his unparalleled technical abilities while recognizing his artistic nods to Surrealism and Cubism.
Harnett's work is included collections in such prominent museums and galleries as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Carnegie Museum of Art (Pittsburgh), the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Harvard University Art Museums, the National Gallery of Art (Washington D.C.), the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa), Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum (Madrid), and the Wadsworth Atheneum (Connecticut), among others.