WILLIAM MICHAEL HARNETT (1848-1892)
WILLIAM MICHAEL HARNETT (1848-1892)
WILLIAM MICHAEL HARNETT (1848-1892)
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WILLIAM MICHAEL HARNETT (1848-1892)
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WILLIAM MICHAEL HARNETT (1848-1892)

Lobster, Fruit, Champagne and Newspaper

Details
WILLIAM MICHAEL HARNETT (1848-1892)
Lobster, Fruit, Champagne and Newspaper
signed and dated 'Wm Harnett./München./1882.' (lower left)
oil on canvas
10 x 8 1/4 in. (25.4 x 20.9 cm.)
Painted in 1882.
Provenance
Sotheby's, New York, 5 December 1991, lot 23.
Private collection, La Jolla, California, acquired from the above.
Christie's, New York, 29 November 2001, lot 7, sold by the above.
Acquired by the late owner from the above.

Brought to you by

Tylee Abbott
Tylee Abbott Vice President, Head of American Art

Lot Essay

Painted in 1882, William Michael Harnett’s Lobster, Fruit, Champagne and Newspaper belongs to a special series of still life paintings the artist began that year in Munich featuring a red lobster as the central element. There are six known works in the series, two of which are in the collections of the Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio, and Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Alabama. Notably, the present work is possibly the only example featuring a red background. With its fine attention to detail and meticulous execution, Lobster, Fruit, Champagne and Newspaper is among the most accomplished paintings of the American still life tradition.

Harnett studied the Dutch Old Masters while in Munich, and it is possible his lobster paintings were inspired by Abraham van Beyeren’s Large Still-Life with Lobster (1653, Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany). Similar to the Old Master tradition, Harnett’s Munich still lifes are all executed in smaller-than-life scale to create gem-like compositions. William Gerdts writes, “In Munich, Harnett acquired a finesse and elegance of technique, and at the same time he created compositions, which were themselves filled with antique and pseudo antique bric-a-brac, often of the seventeenth century, paintings that both naturally resembled seventeenth-century still lifes and included objects sought after by collectors as antiques.” (Painters of Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life: 1801-1939, Columbia, Missouri, 1981, p. 158)

The composition of Lobster, Fruit, Champagne and Newspaper is filled with the kind of prized delicacies one might find in a prosperous home, and draws on the tradition of the kitchen still life initiated in America with the art of Raphaelle Peale. Yet, in contrast to the sparer compositions of Peale—whose work Harnett almost certainly knew from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, in his native Philadelphia—Lobster, Fruit, Champagne and Newspaper presents a lively abundance of objects. Against a vivid red background, Harnett sets the objects on a rich, embroidered fabric, with the brilliantly colored lobster at center. The crustacean is surrounded by an oriental ginger jar, a box of figs, a champagne bottle topped with gold foil, an apple, grapes, and a wrapped orange. As noted by Thayer Tolles, "during his career, Harnett's paintings featuring or including fruit progressed conceptually from simple to relatively complex schemes. As fruit ceased to be the central focus of his compositions, it took on a new role, filling and balancing spaces." ("Permanent Perishables," William M. Harnett, New York, 1992, p. 218)

Even though the present work was painted in Germany, the newspaper finely executed in the lower part of the composition is notably printed in English (possibly a copy of the Times of Philadelphia). This element underscores the importance of Lobster, Fruit, Champagne and Newspaper in modernizing a European still life tradition through a new American perspective, and moreover Harnett’s integral role in establishing a new school of trompe l’oeil painters in the United States.

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