William Michael Harnett (American, Clonakilty, County Cork, Ireland 1848 - 1892 New York)
Meerschaum Pipe, 1886
Oil on canvas
17 1/4 x 12 3/8 in. (43.8 x 31.4 cm)
Signed and dated lower right: WMHARNETT. (WMH in monogram)/1886.
Charles F. Olney Fund, 1945
This strikingly simple still life exemplifies Harnett's mastery of
painting and his devotion to the humblest of subjects. Cleverly illusionistic compositions by Harnett, John Peto (1854-1907), and others were especially popular in American painting of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
The simple trompe l'oeil formula of the Oberlin painting, with a single object seen to be hanging upon a wood panel, was one Harnett utilized repeatedly during the mid 1880s. Other such compositions feature a horseshoe, a dead rabbit, a plucked chicken, or a pistol: American vernacular objects placed before a commonplace background, yet ennobled through the bold, iconic presentation and refined detail of execution. The humble wood panel that forms the background is as carefully, and as illusionistically, painted as the actual "subject" of the composition; splits and holes in the wood are realistically feathered with splinters, and the green paint is mottled with wear. Harnett frequently reused compositional elements in his paintings; similar, if not identical, meerschaum pipes appear in several other works from the period, most often in combination with newspapers, books, tankards, tobacco, and other attributes of the masculine world.1
The Oberlin picture closely resembles another version of the same subject, now in The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.2 The two paintings are both signed in a similar manner and dated 1886, and are nearly identical in size. The most notable difference is the presence of a small newspaper clipping, affixed to the wall below the pipe, in the San Francisco picture. The pipe in the Oberlin picture is slightly larger, and dangles from a longer string; the pattern of cracks, gouges, holes and traces of chalk markings that enliven the dark green background is different in each piece. Whereas the signature in the San Francisco painting is illusionistically "carved" into the background--a common feature in Harnett's paintings--this effect is not found in the Oberlin work. Harnett occasionally produced other, nearly identical variants of his own compositions; compare, for example, the Toledo Blade (Toledo Museum of Art) and the Philadelphia Times (The New Britain Museum of American Art), both signed and dated 1886.3
M. E. Wieseman
Born in Clonakilty, County Cork, Ireland, on 10 August 1848, William Michael Harnett moved with his family to Philadelphia in 1849. He was trained as an engraver, and subsequently worked for several jewelry and silver manufacturers in New York from 1869 to 1875. During this time Harnett also studied painting at the Cooper Union and National Academy of Design; he continued his artistic training in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (1876-78). In 1880 the artist traveled to Europe, visiting London and Frankfurt before settling in Munich, where he resided from 1881 to 1885. Harnett stopped in Paris for several months before returning to New York in 1886. He died in New York on 29 October 1892. Harnett was almost exclusively a painter of still lifes. He is most famous for his trompe l'oeil paintings, clever illusions that convince the viewer that he is looking at the actual objects, rather than at a painted recreation.
Frankenstein, Alfred. After The Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters 1870-1900. Berkeley, 1953; rev. ed. Berkeley, 1969.Bolger, Doreen, Marc Simpson, and John Wilmerding, eds. William M. Harnett. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992-93.
With A. F. Mondschein, New York, from whom purchased in 1945
Oberlin, Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, 1945. Exhibition of Still Life Paintings, 17th to 19th Centuries. March. Unnumbered cat. (Prior to acquisition).
New York, Downtown Gallery, 1948. Harnett Centennial Exhibition. 13 April - 1 May.
New York, M. Knoedler & Company, Inc., 1954. Paintings and Drawings from Five Centuries: Collection Allen Memorial Art Museum. 3 - 21 February. Cat. no. 62.
Milwaukee Art Institute, 1956. Still Life Painting since 1470. September - October (also shown at Cincinnati Art Museum). Cat. no. 29.
Kenwood, London County Council, 1962. An American University Collection: Works of Art from the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin, Ohio. 3 May - 30 October. Cat. no. 22.
The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1975-76. Extended loan for exhibition with permanent collection. 9 April 1975 - 22 December 1976.
Milwaukee Art Institute. Still Life Painting Since 1470. Exh. cat., Milwaukee, 1956, cat. no. 29.
Stechow, Wolfgang. Catalogue of European and American Paintings and Sculpture in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College. Oberlin, 1967, p. 68, fig. 185.
Frankenstein, Alfred. After The Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters 1870-1900. Berkeley, 1953; rev. ed. Berkeley, 1975, pp. 72, 177, no. 101.
The canvas has been lined, possibly in the early twentieth century, and the stretcher replaced. As a result the painting has been enlarged by about 1/4 in. on each side, and these margins have been retouched.4 The background is quite thinly painted in places, allowing the brownish underpaint to show through, particularly in the area to the right of the pipe. Immediately to the right of the mouthpiece, underdrawing (partially visible with the naked eye) suggests that Harnett originally conceived a more vertical position for the pipe.5
1. On specific objects in Harnett's paintings and their connotations, see Roxana Robinson, "Common Objects of Everyday Life," William M. Harnett (exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992-93), pp. 161-67, esp. p. 166 (on pipes and smoking).
2. Oil on canvasboard (now mounted on canvas), 43.5 x 30.8 cm, signed and dated lower left: WMHARNETT. (WMH in monogram)/1886, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, inv. 1979.7.46.
3. Reproduced in William M. Harnett (exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992-93), pp. 228 and 227, respectively.
4. The present dimensions of the canvas are 17 3/4 x 13 in. (45.1 x 33 cm) with about 1/4 in. strip of restorer's paint on each side.
5. On Harnett's use of underdrawing, see Jennifer Milam, "The Artist's Working Methods," in William M. Harnett (exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1992-93), pp. 169-75.