John Haberle's paintings are among the most skillfully rendered trompe l'oeil scenes from the late nineteenth century. Although he received little formal training, Haberle consistently created works of exquisite precision and thoughtful subjects that fascinate and engage viewers. Throughout his career, Haberle chose to paint compositions that ranged from still lifes and currency trompe l'oeils, to elaborate arrangements of photographs, playing cards, stamps, timepieces and other everyday objects that seem to reflect the artist's personal history.
The present work, Music, has only recently been located and identified as a lost painting by the artist. The work is unusual in its combination of Haberle's familiar trompe l'oeil effects and the table-top composition he rarely used. Tacked to the partially draped panel behind the violin are two engraved portraits of the virtuoso violinist Paganini. A border depicting "carved" likenesses of the great composers surrounds the composition. Clockwise, from upper left, are: Beethoven, Gluck, Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Wagner, Meyerbeer, Schumann, and Weber. Haberle employed a similar trompe l'oeil "carved" frame with his 1888 The Changes of Time, a clever and accomplished painting depicting portraits of United States presidents surrounding a collection of coins and stamps. Music also relates to Haberle's Wife, Wine and Song, a work from 1889 similarly depicting an elaborate composition of a violin, bow, sheet music, and a photograph displayed in front of masterfully rendered drapery.
According to Alfred Frankenstein, Haberle painted this work for August Gemunder, a New York violin maker, and used one of Gemunder's instruments as a model. In 1896, Gemunder exhibited the painting in his shop as a sort of advertisement for his instruments, and presumably, also illustrated it in one of his sales catalogues. That Gemunder commissioned the painting, however, or ever actually owned it, is doubtful. In a letter dated April 20, 1896, Gemunder wrote to Haberle: "We shall be pleased to receive the painting 'Music' for exhibition, and as we are now in our new place where we have a Parlor that is now being fitted we will exhibit your painting there, and use it as an attraction to our place."
Through his trompe l'oeil paintings, Haberle asserted himself not only as an exquisite painter of the highest order, but also as an influential artist skilled in creatively engaging the viewer. Beth A. Handler comments that "the debate about the difference between reality and illusion succinctly describes the reactions to American trompe l'oeil painting during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. It also aptly characterizes the most successful aspect of Haberle's oeuvre, as he was devoted to exploiting the illusionistic possibilities of painting. Within the confines of this genre of pictorial deception, he consistently sought to surpass his own ingenuity, and it is precisely his flair for manipulation that helped to revivify a previously dormant tradition." (A Private View: American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection, New Haven, Connecticut, 1993, p. 54)