Sunday, April 21, 2013

Exquisite Deception: The Trompe l'Oeil of William Harnett

William Harnett, The Old Violin

“A painting has been added to the Art Gallery, which has created a furor.
Visitors will need no guide post, they will find it by following the crowd.”
— Cincinnati newspapers, 1886

In the days before David Blaine, this was as close to public spectacles of mesmerizing sorcery as people could get. If anything, the newspapers understated the effect of Harnett's painting.

Paul Staiti, in his essay entitled "Con Artists: Harnett, Haberle, and Their American Accomplices," says that "Harnett's painting The Old Violin so agitated and attracted crowds at the thirteenth Cincinnati Industrial Exposition in 1886 that a policeman was detailed to stand beside the picture and prevent viewers from trying to take down its fiddle and bow."

Besides his technical wizardry, William Harnett was a recognized master of composition. Each element in The Old Violin was positioned to achieve a precise balance. An interesting exercise is to block out any element, such as the door handle, with our hand. It's immediately apparent that each element was deliberately composed so as to achieve balance and order, and that not one item is superfluous to the overall composition.

John F. Peto, Old Violin

Thanks to a widely distributed chromolithograph, The Old Violin would fast become an icon of American art, inspiring a group of illusionist painters (including John F. Petowith his crisp, linear style.

William Harnett, Music and Good Luck

The shallow space created by filling the entire canvas with an impenetrable door was essential to the trompe l'oeil effect. Harnett presented the objects directly before the viewer, preventing the eye from moving beyond and into the work, in direct refutation of Alberti's "window pane." Alberti would famously bid us stare through the picture plane, at an illusory world of space behind the canvas. His picture plane is an imaginary window in the foreground, with all the action taking place behind this plane. This was the remarkable and revolutionary idea that sparked Renaissance painters to adopt linear perspective.

Harnett reverses this heirarchy of space. Instead, he has all the action appear to happen in front of the picture plane. Through technical sleight-of-hand, he pushes the picture plane itself backwards, and then projects objects forward so that they appear to occupy our space.

detail of torn shreds of sheet music, Alan Carroll
Harnett, the undisputed master of illusionism, made the violin and sheet music the central images of his painting. The music sheet is a favorite visual trope that recurs regularly in Harnett's paintings. I had the opportunity to try my hand at painting music sheets myself recently (above), and understand the challenges that it entails.

John F. Peto, For the Track

Other artists would try to copy Harnett's compositional arrangements, with varying success. John F. Peto's For the Track makes an interesting comparison. Compositionally inferior, it was also technically the weaker painting. Peto's crude brushstrokes make us constantly aware of the presence of the artist, ruining any illusory effect.

John F. Peto, For the Track (detail)

Unlike Harnett's structured, almost spare arrangement, Peto's cluttered canvas, with objects vying for our attention, confuses the viewer and appears chaotic. 

Details from Harnett's "The Old Violin"

Typical of the best examples of trompe l'oeil, there are virtually no signs of brushwork. Harnett developed his own custom tools and techniques to help create his details -  the hinges, news clipping, twine, and stamp. In the details from the National Gallery site (above), we can see from left to right:

  • To create the newspaper clipping, Harnett first painted narrow blocks of thinned black paint over a white ground. With the dark paint still wet, he used a tiny pointed instrument to trace lines through it, revealing the white underlayer and creating a "typeface" that looked real to the viewer, but was in fact illegible.
  • The hinges were produced in a fairly simple, two-step process. Harnett first added either sand or coarsely ground pigment to brown paint to make a rough underlayer. For the rusty highlights, he pulled a dry brush, touched with orange paint, over the brown surface.
  • Harnett used bright highlights on the metal ring and a soft circular shadow on the door to lift the ring off the canvas.
  • The thin twine loop holding the violin is true testament to Harnett's painstaking methods. It is only five inches long, and the artist tweaked hundreds of fine lines in the loop's wet paint with a needlelike tool, producing the coarse-textured appearance.
  • For the cancelled stamp, Harnett first painted a light square with a serrated border, giving each tooth its own delicate highlights and shadow. He then applied a thin layer of brown paint, scraping it with a blunt stylus to make the crossed flags. Next, Harnett used a minute pointed tool to make the almost microscopic engraving lines. He painted the cancellation mark with black and then smudged the entire stamp with his finger. His fingerprint is still visible.

"William Harnett transformed still-life painting in America when he tipped the picture plane on end, hanging objects on a rough-hewn door rather than placing them on the customary table top. Harnett's pictorial innovations—the vertical orientation, his choice of tactile objects, and his painstaking trompe l'oeil techniques—made him the most famous still-life painter in the last quarter of the nineteenth century," and arguably the inventor of the style called American Trompe l'Oeil.

Deer and Wildfowl, Adolphe Braun, 1865

Of course, as with any invention, he didn't just pluck the idea from the ether. There were precedents. In the 1880s Harnett spent six years in Europe, studying old master still-life painting. In Munich, he was exposed to the photographs by Adolphe Braun. Braun's flat, textured pictures of dead game, hunting implements, and horns suspended against a textured wall would have a profound effect on Harnett's work.

While most famous for his vertical still lifes of wild game, musical instruments, and paper ephemera, William Harnett is credited with introducing another, more controversial, subject to still life: money. 

Other artists had included currency in their paintings, but Harnett was the first to focus solely on paper bills and coins, making them look so real that in 1886 he was arrested for counterfeiting. New York law officers seized Five Dollar Bill from the saloon where it hung and demanded that Harnett hand over other "counterfeit" paintings. After viewing the painting, the judge advised that "the development and exercise of a talent so capable of mischief should not be encouraged." Harnett never painted money again.

Imitation, John Haberle (detail)

Harnett stopped making trompe l'oeil images of money, but John Haberle ignored warnings to "stop painting greenbacks" and made it his specialty. He neatly side-stepped accusations of forgery by simply titling his painting "Imitation." 
Five Rules of Trompe l'Oeil

1. The first and most important rule for painters of trompe l'oeil is that the object represented must be depicted actual size.

2. The shallower the space depicted, the more realistic the illusion. The most effective trompe l'oeil has always been a simple sheet of paper pinned to a board. As soon as the artist plays with deeper space (e.g. the space occupied by a musical instrument), the trick is not as effective. Our brains know that if it were a real musical instrument, our stereoscopic binocular vision would provide us with depth cues, also called parallax. Since this is just a painting, these cues are not present and we know we are being conned.

3. Hide those brushstrokes! Historically, trompe l'oeil was critically derided as being overly technical. Said to be merely virtuoso displays, they were dismissed as shallow egotism. But that was exactly the point! If it's to pass as reality, then it must be as smooth as a baby's butt.

4. Don't paint humans. Famous examples to the contrary by Mantegna and Veronese notwithstanding, objects that would in reality move about, should not be included in traditional trompe l'oeil. There's nothing like a smiling or waving human, frozen for eternity in a dry-mouthed grimmace, to ruin the effect of trompe l'oeil.

5. Don't cut the outline of objects with the frame. Objects in trompe l'oeil paintings must have their entire outline visible within the frame.

There are probably more rules, but I can't think of them right now.

Why is trompe l'oeil so popular?

The attraction of trompe l'oeil is the thrill of that magical moment where reality is suspended. The longer the viewer can be held in that suspended state, the greater the pleasure upon realizing the deception.

John Ruskin wrote of trompe l'oeil, "The mind derives its pleasure, not from the contemplation of a truth, but from the discovery of falsehood. . . . The degree of pleasure depends on the degree of difference and the perfection of the resemblance, not on the nature of the thing resembled."

Ruskin was right, says Staiti, that the pleasure of experiencing a painting by Harnett or Haberle is in "an expanded moment of passage from suspecting a picture is a deception to knowing a picture is a deception." The critical point of trompe l'oeil, he writes, is that "it is irony, not truth or beauty, that is triumphant. Paradox rules."


  1. This is usual! You taught me a thing or two that I want to incorporate into some studies. Thanks Alan!

  2. A good read. Thanks for taking the time, Alan.

  3. Yes such wonderful sharing again. Thank you Alan !

  4. nice article Alan!
    It does seem that American Realism is on the rise and that newer trompe l'oeil paintings are again in vogue. Huzzah for keeping this alive.
    I was reminded of "the Old Violin" not too long ago when I saw Carol Pascal's rather nice trompe l'oeil at the Salon in Chicago. A picture posted here:

    1. Carol's work is great. Thanks for passing that along.