William Michael Harnett (1848-1892)
William Michael Harnett (1848-1892)


William Michael Harnett (1848-1892)
signed with conjoined initials and dated 'WMHarnett/1880' (lower right)
oil on canvas
7½ x 9½ in. (19.1 x 24.1 cm.)
Bert Smokler, Detroit, Michigan.
Private collection, New York.
Private collection, Washington, D.C., 1998.
A. Frankenstein, After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870-1900, Berkeley, California, 1975, p. 172.

Lot Essay

In 1880 William M. Harnett produced a series of tabletop still lifes of which Latakia is a superb example. This year marked a significant stylistic transition in the artist's work and heralded the birth of his mature style. That January he departed for Europe, where he would remain for the next six years. All but one of the eleven known works painted that year incorporate a beer stein or stoneware jug, a meerschaum pipe, a book and a newspaper. In ten of the works, the newspaper is sequentially dated from January to July 1880. The one in Latkia is dated July, making it one of the last and most sophisticated of the series. These works mark a shift to a smaller scale as the elements are miniaturized rather than life-size as those in the late 1870s. This reduced size resulted in a more detailed, fastidious brushstroke that became the hallmark of Harnett's later painting.

Latakia manifests Harnett's wit in its tantalizing placement of objects. The newspaper is folded, the title and date only partially visible and the smaller text illegible; the box of matches is partially obstructed by the tobacco; and the spines of the books, shrouded in shadow, remain beguilingly unclear. These partially revealed objects, as well as the small size of the picture, all serve to simultaneously entice the viewer into the painting and rebuff his investigative attempts. Harnett compels an interaction between viewer and painting and creates a "cycle of reading in which response is a steady movement toward the picture." (P.J. Staiti in D. Bolger, M. Simpson and J. Wilmerding, eds., William M. Harnett, New York, 1992, p. 38) This effect is further enhanced by the placement of the newspaper, projecting into the viewer's space and adding further legitimacy to the illusion, while the Latakia tobacco container, appears to be in a slightly perilous position, about to roll off the table at any moment, "suggesting not only that the spectator can touch the objects but might have to rescue them from falling." (W.H. Gerdts and R. Burke, American Still-Life Painting, New York, 1971, p. 134)

In Latakia, as with other works in the series, Harnett introduces a more complex background than his previous pictures, which were set against plain expanses of neutral color. He also covers the formerly exposed wooden table with a richly textured cloth. These additions introduce warmth and complexity to the composition simultaneously encapsulating the space and adding variegated depth that is absent in earlier works. These new elements provide Harnett a further chance to showcase his dexterity with color, form and texture. The artist reveals his mastery of light and shadow in the lush folds of the dark green fabric and luster of the wood paneling and also pays fine attention to detail in the elaborate yellow pattern on the blue table cloth, the drapes of which suggest the invisible table leg. William Gerdts and Russell Burke remark that these table coverings are "not unlike those in seventeenth-century Dutch still lifes, which [Harnett] could easily have seen in Europe, and which seem to have influenced him also in terms of compositional arrangements and specific motifs." (American Still-Life Painting, p. 142)

Harnett adeptly arranges the remaining elements in Latakia into a tactile symphony of color and form. What appears to be a casual scene is actually carefully composed, the placement of each object orchestrated. Harnett spares no opportunity to introduce texture and distinction, meticulously conveying the surface of each element. Indeed, the artist once said, "In painting from still life I do not closely imitate nature. Many points I leave out and many I add. Some models are only suggestions." (N. Cikovsky, Jr. in William M. Harnett, p. 25) The artist strategically places and shades the objects in order to create depth and distinction of structure and texture. The roughly textured stoneware mug acts as a foil for the smooth beer stein and the metallic tobacco tin, while the rounded, reflective shapes of the pitcher, tobacco tin, stein and pipe barrel contrast with the angular edges of the table, newspaper and books. Harnett adeptly depicts the newspaper's ripples and the reflections on the hard surfaces. This precision of detail and the exacting nature of his work is in part due to his early training as a silver engraver. These elements combine with the books and newspaper to suggest a narrative line, that they are the objects of a solitary, learned, comfortable and quiet wealthy man.

Indeed, Harnett chose items that suggested wealth, "He was appealing, of course, to the new moneyed class that had come to being in the wake of the Civil War, the collectors who were to rummage through Europe for both Old Masters and antiquities...In their dark, jewel-like tones and their Dutch reflections, Harnett's paintings not only resembled Old Masters but were replete with the objects...that the collectors were actually buying." (American Still-Life Painting, p. 135) Harnett painted Latakia as the world was becoming increasingly industrialized, leaving many people with a desire for the simplicity of the past. "Harnett's paintings participated in the materialism of their time, but they also subtly resisted it or at least attempted to mediate it by means of their ennobling, quietly inspiring, or even down-home humourous treatment of familiar artifacts that exuded 'the mellowing effect of age.' This is not to suggest that his art was antimodern or that it failed to take part and pleasure in the era's adoration of accumulation and display, but only that its way of doing so-of reconciling potentially guilty consciences and abundant material success-involved dusting off old objects and bathing them in a reverential light." (P.J. Staiti in William M. Harnett, p. 49)

As in many of Harnett's compositions, newspapers play a central role in Latakia where they suggest meaning on both a visual and contextual level. As Laura Coyle suggests, "Harnett's newspaper still lifes may have appealed to his followers on a psychological level because of the way they balance the old (objects softened by the 'mellowing effect of age') and the new (the daily newspaper, symbol of contemporary American life). Harnett's incredible fool-the-eye style made this harmony seem real, attracting viewers who were both nostalgic and progressive-potentially a very wide audience during the Gilded Age. This blending of tradition and modernity may be what Harnett's patrons, particularly the wealthy businessmen, responded to in his still lifes...they could acquire the illusion of accord between the old and the new and take comfort in a convincing but wholly imaginary world." (L.A. Coyle in William M. Harnett, p. 224)

Harnett played an exceptional role within the context of late nineteenth century still life painting due in equal part to his virtuoso and technique and to his subtle wit. Latakia is a magnificent example of the synthesis of these talents. He had many followers, such as John Fredreick Peto and Richard La Barre Goodwin, who adapted not only his style, but also his choice of objects. Of Harnett's extensive influence William Gerdts wrote, "The change in emphasis as to subject matter and aesthetic point of view that took place in American still-life painting during the last quarter of the nineteenth century was molded by one man to a degree that has never been equaled before or since. That one man was William Michael Harnett." (American Still-Life Painting, p.133)

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