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William Michael Harnett

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William Michael Harnett

American, (1848–1892)
The Irish-born, Philadelphia raised William Michael Harnett (1848-92) began his artistic career as a silver engraver. This prepared him for the exacting detail that he accomplished in his oil paintings of still life subjects. His forte was trompe l'oeil (trick-the-eye) painting in which his subjects are placed in a shallow picture plane and seem to assume the illusion of three dimensionality to project into the viewer's own physical space. Unrecognized until nearly a half century after his death, Harnett's reputation was built during the late 1930s and 40s as a result of the international movement of Surrealism.
Harnett's painting, Philadelphia Public Ledger, is a prime example of his expertise in painting in this manner. The objects in the painting are painted in life size and seem incredibly real, as if the viewer could reach into the painting to extract them. Harnett's attention to detail demonstrates both his abilities with the brush and his acute powers of observation. He paints the mug with the right heft and texture, the pipe appropriately delicate, and creates a worn line on the book showing its use and age. The bits of ash and used matches make the scene less contrived, giving the arrangement a sense of the human touch that went into creating it. Harnett would have you believe that the owner of the objects left the scene a mere moment before he started painting it. Thus, he composes a near portrait of the person who owned the objects.

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