After the Hunt — from trompe l’oeil still life to modern masterpiece.
By Brooke Chilvers
Although the painting After the Hunt may be America’s most well known hunting image, William Michael Harnett (1848–1892) never felled a stag or even aimed a shotgun at a rabbit. Yet his flawlessly painted three-dimensional accoutrements of the chase, all hanging on an old door, readily evoke established traditions of the sport.
In its time, Harnett’s largest painting (71 1/2 by 48 1/2 inches) — and fourth treatment of the topic — was a controversial confection of his particularly American brand of trompe l’oeil realism. Trompe l’oeil is French for “fool the eye,” and within the still life genre, it is the most extreme form of illusionism.
Debates over optical deception in art date back to a.d. 77 to Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia. Pliny recounts the competition between realist artists Zeuxis, whose painted grapes tricked birds into pecking at them, and Parrhasius, who laughed out loud when asked to draw the curtain concealing his painting. Realizing the curtain was the painting — or vice versa — Zeuxis conceded.
It’s also been forever argued that still life painting is mere decorative and not fine art — duplication, not creation. “A mere copier of nature can never produce anything great,” professed Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792). One critic of Harnett wrote, “This charge of inferiority is justified by the consideration that this imitative work is not really so difficult as it seems to the layman.”
Until the arrival of abstract art in the early 20th century, the primary criterion for judging a work’s legitimacy was the worthiness of its subject. At the top were historical, mythological, or religious themes, followed by portraits and landscapes, with still life on the very bottom rung. Within the genre itself, the elegant Venetian glass and crystal vases of a Blaise Desgoffe (1830–1901) outranked the earthenware beer steins and meerschaum pipes of a Harnett.
Yet Harnett’s splendid hanging-game piece managed to propel the struggling artist to a final fling with success before his disastrous health killed him at the height of his hard-earned fame.
Harnett, the second son of an impoverished shoemaker, was born during the Irish Potato Famine in the seaside town of Clonakilty, County Cork. A year later, the family joined the million immigrants of the Irish diaspora, landing in Philadelphia, where William’s three sisters were born. He attended Catholic school and began sketching on slate at age 13, until his father drowned in the Delaware River. Obliged to help support his widowed mother and siblings, the youngster went to work as an errand and newspaper boy.
At 17, he apprenticed as an engraver, then moved to New York City in 1869, where he incised monograms and patterns on silver tableware for the nation’s most prestigious manufacturers, Wood & Hughes, and Tiffany & Co. Critics see parallels between Harnett’s technical skills with an exacting burin and the scrupulously controlled lines and hard edges of his brushwork.
From 1866 on, Harnett nearly always attended evening classes, first at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and then in New York City at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art and the National Academy of Design, but only started painting in oil after eight years of study. Described as “tall, lean, solemn, Celtic, and wise,” he began private lessons with the Danish portrait artist Thomas Jensen but quit after 10 days, dismayed by his teacher’s explanations.
In 1875, after selling a still life of fruit for $50, “a small fortune for me,” he opted for full-time art and returned to Philly (and the academy) to set up his own studio.
By 1878, Harnett was secure in his style of laden tabletops and writing tables that he painted parallel to the picture’s plane, placing the objects on their narrow forward edges against shallow backgrounds, a technique that helps outsmart the viewer’s eye. His “mug and pipe” groupings included glazed Dutch jars, jostled vellum-bound books, and coyly folded newspapers with pretended upside-down text. Painting multiple versions of the same compositions, he sometimes altered only the smallest detail, such as the number of spilled matches.
Harnett made modest sales through the Philadelphia gallery, James S. Earle & Sons, which sold pictures “suitable for the house, physician, merchant; the lawyer, billiard room, stable.” The gallery also sent his work to the art shows of trade conventions, such as the 1879 Cincinnati Industrial Exhibition. In addition to academy exhibits, Harnett’s best venues included hotel lobbies, the windows of Wanamaker’s Grand Depot department store in Philly, and Reed’s elegant drugstore in Toledo.
Greeted mostly with indifference by art critics, Harnett nonetheless appealed to affluent businessmen, brewers, and prosperous manufacturers. Although he did accept some commissions, he was not eager to paint the mostly tasteless bric-a-brac of others.
By 1880, Harnett had earned enough money to travel to Europe: London and Frankfurt for six months with a patron who purchased his every canvas, and then Munich for three years, where he exhibited at the Kunstverein or artists’ society.
Meanwhile, he collected the stoneware, candlesticks, violins, and antique firearms he used as models. Four hundred of his meager treasures were auctioned off at his death.
If Harnett’s initial inspiration was America’s “first painter of deceptions,” Philadelphia-born Raphaelle Peale (1774–1825), he could now study the Dutch and Flemish Golden Age masters. Harnett left no written account of his impressions, but in Munich he likely saw Jacopo de’ Barbari’s Still Life with Partridge and Iron Gauntlets (1504). The scrap of paper “pasted” to the canvas is found in Harnett’s distinct Golden Horseshoe (1886).
In the Louvre, he would have seen Scottishborn William Gouw Ferguson’s (1632/33–1695) rooster and hanging game, painted in Holland in the style of Jan Weenix, as well as Weenix’s own Game and Hunting Equipment on a Windowsill. He likely knew Jacob Biltius’s (1633–1683) large illusionistic game pieces that use niches and dark shadows to limit depth; and the “wall paintings” of Johannes Leemans (1633–1688), which mix precisely depicted three-dimensional birdcages and weaponry with sporting paraphernalia.
For inspiration for After the Hunt, Harnett needed only to enter any Bavarian tavern to see stag antlers strung with a game bag, Tyrolean hat, and hunting horn. In 1883, he painted two versions of his painting, the first with a dorsal view of a handsome suspended mallard, and a frontal view in the second.
In his third 1884 version, he switched out the ducks for a rabbit, and added an ivory-handled naval dirk. But the “hunting gun” with its stock decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay of running deer is, in fact, a wheel lock arquebus of late Baroque design, probably made in Germany around 1740.
The Munich School of art at that time liked a “dashing, brushy, painterly style,” described one author. “Harnett’s immaculate realism, brushwork concealed, seemed old-fashioned to teachers and critics there.” Despite his relentless hard work, Harnett admitted, “I could not attain the desired results by using the methods they taught,” and his paintings of meticulous, mechanical precision were rejected by the Munich Royal Academy of Fine Arts.
Harnett moved to Paris, where he bought the biggest canvas he could find and painted his fourth and final After the Hunt in three months. In this 1885 version, he added a rusty horseshoe, a flintlock pistol with appliqué silver decoration of a parrot’s head, a flask, and a large key.
Harnett uses the V of the antlers, the diagonals of the weapons and floating alpenstock, and the circular sweep of the hunting horn to visually unite the fanned-out objects and dangling game. Solid horizontal door hinges and a vertical shieldshaped key escutcheon frame and anchor the many elements. Layering and intertwining them reinforces the illusion of three dimensions, as do the artist’s “whittled” signature and date.
Although the painting was praised and reproduced in M. Louis Énault’s prestigious compendium of 40 paintings from the 1885 Paris Salon, it didn’t sell and instead sailed to New York with a homesick Harnett. Although tailored to the taste of a well-to-do European sportsman, After the Hunt unexpectedly sold — for an astounding $4,000 — to Theodore Stewart, the owner of two upscale Manhattan saloons that doubled as art galleries.
The canvas, “magnificently draped in crimson velvet whose rich folds form a beautiful foreground,” hung in Stewart’s “famous lunch and liquor place” on 8 Warren Street near city hall, where it had to be protected with a railing from the rowdy crowds of Doubting Thomases who debated, thumbed, and poked at it. Still the painting had been lauded in newspapers from San Francisco to London, and even President Cleveland and his wife came to see it.
Debilitated by rheumatism and kidney disease, Harnett sought relief in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and Wiesbaden, Germany. His last years, he hardly painting at all. (The output of his short career is estimated at 250 works.)
At age 44, he collapsed into a coma in the street in front of his studio, dying after several days in New York Hospital. Ten years later, Harnett’s name had vanished from the art world. His patrons died, and his and their families died out. He was again overlooked and obscure.
In 1935, Harnett’s definitive Faithful Colt (1890) was shown to America’s most ardent advocate of both folk and modern art, Edith Gregor Halpert, founder of the pioneering Downtown Gallery.
Halpert was enthralled with the silent strength of Harnett’s iconic depiction of a single .55-caliber model 1860 army revolver by Hartford gunsmith Samuel Colt, hanging on a cracked green door with eye-fooling splinters and convincing old nails. The creased newspaper clipping, tacked to the door and appearing to stick out toward the viewer, is deliciously deceiving.
The work that in Harnett’s lifetime hung on the showroom walls of the upscale New York jewelry firm Black, Starr & Frost was now being seen through the eyes of a worldly gallerist. To Halpert, the painting’s frank geometry and clean spatial relationships suggested Abstraction; its tone implied Surrealism.
Halpert shrewdly established the artist’s relevance by selling the emblematic Colt painting, dropping the price from $475 to $300, to the prestigious Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, where one wing and a major collection had been donated by Sam Colt’s widow.
Realizing that the artist could “provide myself with old-age security,” Halpert rounded up a dozen Harnetts, her “pickers” combing thrift shops, estate sales, and country auctions. In 1939, she mounted an exhibition she called Nature-Vivre — a play on the French word for “still life,” naturemort — and immediately sold three Harnetts to Nelson Rockefeller alone; he eventually owned seven.
By 1947, more than 100 Harnetts were hanging in dozens of cultural institutions when his biographer Alfred Frankenstein accidentally discovered during his research that a good number of them were fakes. For after the death of both Harnett and his friend, and equally gifted trompe l’oeil artist, John F. ›Peto (1854–1907), someone had been forging Harnett’s signature on Peto’s work. Nevertheless, few buyers tried to return them.
Today, the trompe l’oeil masterpiece of the self-described impoverished and “friendless boy” hangs in the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco.