William Harnett was an Irish-American artist whose startlingly realistic paintings of ordinary, everyday objects made him a pioneer of American still life painting.
He was born in Ireland in 1848, but his family emigrated to America and settled in Philadelphia when he was still an infant. Growing up in a working class family, he spent his teenage years selling newspapers and working as an errand boy before training as a silver engraver. In 1866 he enrolled in evening classes at the Pennsylvania School of Art, where he learnt to draw from plaster casts of ancient sculptures. He became an American citizen in 1868, and the following year he moved to New York, where he worked in an engraving shop and continued his studies at the National Academy of Design.
The influence of seventeenth-century Dutch still life painting is clear in Harnett’s work, but what set his compositions apart was that he rearranged the traditional picture plane, hanging objects from a vertical surface rather than arranging them on a table. He began painting and exhibiting fruit still lifes in the 1870s in America before travelling to Europe in the 1880s, where he spent six years working and studying old master still life painting. The composition and subject matter of Harnett’s paintings changed little throughout his life, with arrangements of violins, sheet music, paper currency, tobacco pipes and books being characteristic of his work.
Combined with his innovative approach to composition and his use of familiar, everyday objects, Harnett’s distinctive ‘trompe l’oeil’ style placed him at the helm of a new movement of American still life painting. He enjoyed great commercial success towards the end of his life, but these later years were also beset by poor health. He died in New York in 1892 and was mourned by the American press as being ‘one of the country’s greatest ever still life painters.’ Nonetheless it wasn’t long before his name had shrunk to obscurity and critics were claiming that his worked lacked any ‘imaginative quality.’ Only since the middle of the twentieth century have scholars begun to draw attention to his work again, and his pioneering reputation exists to this day.