William Michael Harnett (1848-1892)
Property from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph H. Davenport, Jr.
William Michael Harnett (1848-1892)


William Michael Harnett (1848-1892)
signed with initials in monogram and dated 'WMHarnett/1885.' (lower right)
oil on panel
11 1/8 x 14 ½ in. (28.3 x 36.8 cm.)
Painted in 1885.
B. Cohen & Sons, London.
Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York, acquired from the above, 1970.
Acquired by the late owners from the above, 1970.
Please note that this lot is accompanied by a letter from Dr. William H. Gerdts.
New York, Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., Forty Masterworks of American Art, October 28-November 14, 1970, p. 43, no. 30, illustrated.
Chattanooga, Tennessee, Hunter Museum of American Art, The Alice E. and Joseph H. Davenport, Jr. Collection, April 10-June 7, 2015.

Lot Essay

In 1885 William Harnett moved to Paris from Munich to test his artistic abilities at the Salon des Beaux Arts. Before his departure, he had completed three of four renditions of After the Hunt, his brilliant trompe l'oeil still life depicting arrangements of game and hunting gear hanging dramatically against a dark wooden door with elaborate metal hinges. Once he settled in Paris, he began work on the fourth and final version of After the Hunt (The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Mildred Anna Williams Collection, San Francisco, California), which would become his most renowned work. Painted in the same year as this masterpiece of his career, Music is an adroitly executed trompe l'oeil composition in which the artist reveals the technical virtuoso and subtle wit that established him as an incomparable icon within the context of nineteenth-century still-life painting.

Dr. William H. Gerdts writes of the present work, “All the elements in the picture are those to be found in Harnett’s paintings of the early-to-mid 1880s, the style which he developed during his years abroad, spent particularly in Munich in 1881-1884. This includes his emphasis on objects of rarity such as the vellum covered antique book, here, as often, falling apart; the violin; the sheet music and the armored figural candelabrum which features in a number of his other paintings…Typical too, is the paneled door background and the paneled support with its thin marble top, with half the table covered by a cloth. Developed during these years also is his tremendously precise rendering of these objects, with stained sheet music, papers that curl up on frayed edges, the splayed book with fanning pages--a favorite motif--and especially noteworthy is the way two of the pages are slightly folded over, one more creased than the other.

“Further, an element not often discussed by writers on Harnett is the deliberate miniaturization of the composition, with all the objects in exact proportion to one another, but at the same time all of them far smaller than in actuality. Two considerations should be mentioned here. One is that, at this time in the 1870s and ‘80s, there was a school of South German and Austrian still-life painters who specialized in exactly this miniaturization approach; the best-known was probably the Austrian Camilla Friedlander. Harnett would have come into contact with the work of these artists during his years in Munich and even earlier, since some of their still-life paintings were exhibited at the Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia in 1876. The second is speculative: the reasons for such miniaturization. I believe this was not only to demonstrate the artist’s exceptional skill, but also to insure their acceptance as ‘works of art’ rather than mere transcriptions of reality—the ‘real thing’ after all is simply much larger--‘life size’--than the forms displayed here, which demonstrates the artist’s reductive skills and therefore his creative powers.” (unpublished letter, September 16, 2015)

Indeed, in Music, Harnett pursues every available opportunity to demonstrate his technical and intellectual prowess. From the detailed sheet music and visible title of Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata on the ripped vellum book cover to the palpable cross-hatched texture of the green tablecloth, the work exemplifies the astounding realism for which Harnett is best known. Moreover, his ingenuity is demonstrated through the clever ways in which the still-life objects reveal the passage of time, from the books with folds, stains and rips to the more subtle: the slightly crooked candelabra with unevenly melted candles and the casually-propped violin with one frazzled, broken string. These elements embody the sophistication that is a testament to Harnett’s unequaled influence in the American still-life tradition and his continued legacy.

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