William Michael Harnett's table-top compositions of newspapers, pipes and mugs are among the most memorable in the tradition of American still life. Still Life with Pipe and Philadelphia Ledger of 1878 exemplifies this genre, as it is painted in Harnett's hallmark style which evokes nostalgia and fondness for warn, humble objects.
Newspapers play a key role in many of Harnett's compositions, and they suggest meaning on both a visual and a contextual level. Harnett used newspapers in inventive ways, fashioning their folds, creases and pages to create lively, imaginative compositions. Of the contextual meaning of the newspaper in the artist's lifetime, Laura Coyle writes, "Harnett's contemporaries would have immediately associated these paintings with the roles the newspapers occupied in all aspects of daily life. The artist was active during an era of rapid and often difficult change--a time that embraced nostalgia but also acknowledged, and often commended, progress. 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... With the paintings they purchased from Harnett, however, they could acquire the illusion of accord between the old and the new and take comfort in a convincing but wholly imaginary world." (William M. Harnett, New York, 1992, p. 224)