• U.S.

A Reliable Bag of Tricks

6 minute read
Robert Hughes




THE BOTTOM LINE: An overblown look at work that exemplifies the delights — and limits — of skillful realism.

FOR SOME DECADES NOW, THE eye-fooler William Harnett (1848-92) has been one of the most popular American 19th century painters. Everyone relishes the stories about his gee-whiz illusionistic skills and how they mesmerized Americans at the dawn of the photographic age a century ago, people less drenched in images and less blase about them than we. “So real is it,” wrote a Cincinnati journalist in 1886 about a Harnett called The Old Violin, that a special guard “has been detailed to stand beside the picture and suppress any attempts to take down the fiddle and the bow.” To some, Harnett suggested a classical parallel. He was the American Zeuxis, the Greek painter (none of whose works survive) who was said to be so good at trompe l’oeil that birds flew down to peck the grapes in one of his still lifes, thus proving that he could bamboozle not only men but Nature herself. People loved Harnett’s work because they felt he was a con man. To be fooled and know you are being fooled (along with others) is a truly democratic joy.

But not even the resources of the Metropolitan Museum of Art can turn Harnett into one of the best American artists of his time. This is not for lack of trying. The Met’s Harnett show, which will travel to Fort Worth and San Francisco before finishing at the National Gallery in Washington in the spring of 1993, marks the 100th anniversary of his death and contains most of his known work.

Harnett’s life is slim pickings for the biographer. The son of an immigrant Irish shoemaker from Cork, he lived in Philadelphia, worked in New York City as a journeyman artist and engraver, studied briefly in Munich, showed his pictures in beer halls as well as in art galleries, and died of kidney failure at the age of 44 without leaving a single recorded comment on his art or, indeed, on anything else, beyond declaring that “I endeavour to make the composition tell a story.” But one may be fairly sure that if his ghost saw the Met’s catalog, it would utter an Irish oath of bewilderment. It features essays by 22 scholars, all solemnly excogitating on such weighty matters as whether the horseshoes in his pictures are from dray horses or Thoroughbreds. If one wanted an example of how art history gets trivialized by sheer overpopulation of the field and turned into a checkerboard of prolix specializations, this is it.

On the wall, and somewhere under this tumulus of pedantry, is a minor artist with some distinctly good moments and a reliable bag of tricks, whose work can be enjoyed on its own terms without loading it with significance. All his paintings in the show — with one exception, an inertly sentimental picture of a small black boy in a paper hat — are still lifes. He was not interested in figures and had no feel for the human face. The best of Harnett is, so to speak, the weak populist end of the best strain in 19th century American art: its adherence to pragmatic, empirical vision, to art as an instrument of the world’s measurement. (The great figures in this are Audubon, Eakins and Homer.)

His early paintings, of the 1870s, are stiff, naive and curiously old- fashioned; they are almost exactly like the work that Raphaelle Peale, America’s first still-life artist, had been doing around 1815. But Harnett hit his stride in the 1880s, and in fact the most beautiful painting in this show, The Artist’s Letter Rack, dates from 1879: an image of letters, visiting cards and a theater ticket, the meager index of an artist’s social life, held by a crisscrossed square of pink tape to an unvarnished pine board. Everything is actual size, and the flatness of the board corresponds to the flatness of the painting, so that the illusion is nearly absolute. The pencil and chalk marks on the board look just like pencil and chalk, every grain line in the cheap wood and fiber in a torn paper edge is there, and the play of the yellow and blue rectangles and envelopes against the square of tape has the lovely spareness of a Motherwell collage.

Few other paintings in his career show the same fine play between aesthetic intent and illusionism. Usually it’s the eye-fooling that wins. The comment of a great American Modernist, Marsden Hartley, is cited by one essayist: “In Harnett there is nothing to bother about, nothing to confuse, nothing to $ interpret . . . there is the myopic persistence to render every single thing singly.” The catalog protests this, pointing to the stories that underlie the conglomerations of things in his still lifes, which do indeed provide something to interpret. But was this what Hartley meant? In fact, no. He saw what is plainly true — that in Harnett there is little imaginative dimension beyond the winsome, rebus-like narrative and the skill.

The late 19th century art audience, especially in America, liked “puzzle pictures” — images that told a hidden story. Still life was a standard vehicle for these. It was the end of an older tradition, that of the allegorical table piece, the vanitas paintings that were so popular in the Netherlands in the 17th century. In them the lowly objects of still-life painting become allegories of the senses or, with a skull and some musty books, of death. Where Harnett is weakest and most derivative is, precisely, where he tried to tell his stories. He liked mild, kitschy allegorizing. His invocations of the past (the classical bronze and the broken copy of Cervantes’ Don Quixote in The Old Cupboard Door, 1889, for instance) are parlor antiquarianism with nothing to say about history. What they respond to is the diffuse sentimentality about the past felt by people ill at ease with the rawness and bustle of the American republic, in the days before bric-a- brac became “collectibles.”

It would be some time — about half a century after Harnett’s death, in fact — before another and more reclusive American, Joseph Cornell, would drag his fine net through the junk stores of New York and turn what it caught into frail, unique feats of the imagination that reach beyond illusionism and nostalgia. One can’t not enjoy Harnett, but he is not an artist one should overrate.

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