William Harnett Biography
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William Harnett (1848-1892)
William Michael Harnett was born in Ireland in 1848 and then, as a child,
was moved to Philadelphia. The best known late nineteenth-century painter of
still lives in trompe l'oeil, Harnett began his career as an engraver, after
studying at both the Pennsylvania Academy and in New York. His earliest
works present quite simple, commonplace objects: newspapers, pipes, books,
and mugs. They are arranged in space and so carefully differentiated in
texture that the viewer has the almost irresistible impulse to reach out and
touch them to make certain that the actual object is not glued to the
canvas. This realism delighted his contemporaries but bored the critics who
considered such works much too ordinary to be art.
Consequently, in his determination to find success as a painter, Harnett went abroad in 1878 painting and exhibiting in London and Paris and then spending four years in Munich. The result of his Munich stay was one figure painting of a monk with a long white beard, a work so bad that the artist returned to his still lives. However, he changed his subject matter to a somewhat more elegant and cultivated series of objects adding antique brass and pottery, guns, and musical instruments. When these changes did not please art critics in Munich, Harnett went to Paris, exhibited in the Salon there, and was rewarded again by fascinated viewers and disdainful critics. Harnett then returned to New York to settle down and paint still lives that sold very well to a large and admiring public. The works are broadly handled, warm and rich in color, sharp and clear-edged, and faithful to reality in the smallest detail. After his death in 1892, Harnett passed into obscurity for a time but interest in his work has resumed in modern times because of its surface resemblance to Surrealism and its arrangements that hint very broadly at Cubism.
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