In a rare revelation about his own art, William Michael Harnett stated, "I always group my figures so as to try and make an artistic composition. I endeavor to make the composition tell a story." Still Life: Le Mot d'Or exemplifies this aspect of Harnett's art, as the painting is at once an artistic grouping as well as a composition that evokes a story.
Still Life: Le Mot d'Or is jewel-like in its precision and clarity. Textures of the various objects are rendered with extreme care--the crystal decanter appears crisp and hard, whereas the rich drapery on the tabletop evokes a sense of warmth and suppleness. The decanter--perhaps filled with port or madeira--stands at right; a half-filled glass rests behind a cigar box which is laid across a well-worn book and a newspaper. In front of the decanter sits an extinguished cigar that has been inserted into cigar holder. Two matches--one new, the other extinguished--rest on the tabletop. All these elements combine to suggest the quiet activities of drinking, cigar smoking and newspaper reading: time-honored activities in the late nineteenth century which are still enjoyed today.
In addition to their narrative component, Harnett's still life paintings such as Still Life: Le Mot d'Or are celebrations of tangible objects. David Lubin writes, "In the so-called Gilded Age following the Civil War, when excesses of wealth and ostentation astounded observers across the land, the representation of objects that bespoke a less materialistic and greedy past must have seemed comforting indeed. Hence, it was in this sense, too, and not simply that of painterly technique, that the models Harnett chose to portray conveyed the mellowing--the meliorating--effect of age. In most scholarly assessments, however, Harnett's exuberant mimesis of cherished physical items, whether commonplace or rare, is thought to be of a piece with Gilded Age proclivities toward material accumulation and conspicuous consumption. Generally, his work has been regarded as a painterly ancillary to the era's outsized appetite for collecting and displaying objects old or new. This makes considerable sense, but to abandon analysis at that level is to do an injustice to the complexities of the art and era in question.
Certainly 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 humorous treatment of familiar artifacts that exuded 'the mellowing effect of age.' This is not to suggest that his art was anti-modern 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." (William M. Harnett, New York, 1992, p. 49)