William Michael Harnett's tabletop compositions of newspapers, pipes and mugs are among the most memorable in the tradition of American still life painting. Two Ounces of 1877 exemplifies this genre, as it is painted in Harnett's hallmark style, which evokes nostalgia and fondness for warn, humble objects.
Harnett claims his first job to be as a newsboy for a local paper and considered himself a self-made man of the nineteenth century. Newspapers not only played a role in his childhood, they played a key role in many of Harnett's compositions as they suggest meaning on both a visual and a contextual level. Laura Coyle writes, "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)
Although Harnett's still lifes appear to have been casually placed, the artist carefully arranged the composition, especially the newspaper. Harnett manipulated the newspaper to reveal part of the masthead. The newspaper included in Two Ounces is the New York Herald, Harnett's favorite newspaper. Coyle continues, "The Herald conformed to a type-the eastern, big-city, nationally known paper-but it also maintained its own special character, which would have been widely appreciated when it appeared in Harnett's paintings. One of the first cheap newspapers with mass appeal, by 1870 the Herald was known for its adventurous and energetic coverage of national and world news." (William M. Harnett, p. 227)
Harnett was clearly painting a still life of a working man's tabletop, not a wealthy gentleman. He includes a stoneware mug, a cracker and a working man's newspaper. Two Ounces is part of a series of still lifes that included mugs and pipes that were called "bachelor's" still lifes. These works reflect objects such a gentleman would have on a daily basis, in this case, a mug, a pipe, tobacco, matches, a cracker and a newspaper. These still lifes tell the story of everyday life, "The newspaper's reader-the lead, yet unportrayed, character-appears to have stepped away momentarily or to be seated just out of sight." (William M. Harnett, p.225)
Textures of these various objects have been rendered with extreme care and detail. The roughness of the stoneware jug, the crumbs from the broken cracker, the opened paper of the tobacco, the smoothness of the pipe and the matches new and extinguished, rest on the tabletop. All these elements combine to suggest the quiet activities of drinking, smoking and newspaper reading: time-honored activities in the late nineteenth century that are still enjoyed today. Two Ounces is a superb example of Harnett's newspaper still lifes evoking a connection to a daily ritual.