In the hierarchy of academic pursuits, still-life painting was considered the least demanding art form. Nevertheless, fruit and flower paintings, which were decorative and opulent, were widely popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some painters duplicated nature so convincingly that they fooled viewers into thinking that the objects they painted were real. Severin Roesen (1815–1872), William Michael Harnett (1848–1892), John Frederick Peto (1854–1907), and John Haberle (1856–1933) were masters of this trompe l’oeil (French for “fool the eye”) tradition. Their highly developed realism was based on a thorough grounding in 19th century academic theories that stressed the faithful observation of nature.
When looking at Roesen’s bountiful still life, you immediately admire the great diversity of fruits: raspberries, strawberries, plums, cherries, peaches, apples, a single pear, half a lemon, and three varieties of grapes. Fruit tumbles over the shelves, enticing us to reach for it. Roesen painted each piece of fruit with the utmost clarity and precision. He flaunted his skill with the transparency of the glass, in which tiny bubbles from the sparkling wine drift up to the surface. His still lifes are allegorical and symbolize wealth and abundance. They were appropriate as decorations for the dining rooms of the merchants and industrialists whose fortunes grew during the American Civil War.
American art is both defined and enriched by the wealth of traditions brought by its immigrants. Roesen’s still life compositions and techniques derived from German and Dutch prototypes. He left his native Cologne in 1848, when unrest in Germany led to waves of immigration to the United States. He eventually settled in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, where he found a supportive German-American community.
The newspaper in Still Life with Violin can be identified as the Philadelphia Times of October 20, 1886; it projects into our space to heighten the illusion of reality. Trained as an engraver of silverware, Harnett was adept at such delicate precision. Here, a variety of old, worn things are piled up somewhat precariously to elicit meditations on the passage of time and life’s fragility. The artist said he preferred objects that showed the “mellowing effect of age.”
Harnett was dismissed by the critics, who favored soft edges and visible brushwork. Yet he enjoyed the patronage of businessmen. Many of the elements in his paintings are items from a man’s study—pipes, books, and newspapers. Peter Samuel Dooner, a pressman for the Times and saloon proprietor, owned this picture and proudly displayed it in his establishment.
Peto painted a variety of subjects including the category called office boards and rack pictures. The trompe l’oeil device of an imaginary canvas back is less common. He did, however, include images of Abraham Lincoln in many late rack pictures.
Peto has realistically painted the false stretcher complete with the fragment of a label of his imaginary canvas. The Lincoln image, an engraving which relates to a Matthew Brady (1822-1896) photograph of the president, is worn, faded, and tattered. By the end of the century, Lincoln’s reputation and image had themselves suffered. His party was responsible for the Spanish-American War and world imperialism may not have met with Peto’s approval.
Haberle and his contemporaries Harnett and Peto are the best-known American painters of trompe l’oeil. The son of German immigrants who settled in New Haven, Haberle began his career as an engraver and then worked as a preparator at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. He studied briefly at the National Academy of Design and established a painting studio in the family home. Years of close detailed work eventually caused Haberle’s eyesight to deteriorate.
In Time and Eternity objects from the temporal world—a pocket watch, playing cards, a rosary, a photograph of a girl from a cigarette package, a pawn receipt, a theater ticket, and a fragmentary newspaper clipping—evoke the theme of time passing and allude to the gambles we take with our lives and souls. The clipping refers to Robert G. Ingersoll (1833–1899), a lecturer tried for blasphemy for his unorthodox views on issues from slavery to the Bible. The painting serves as a visual sermon urging us to live a virtuous life, as we never know when death will come.
What do you think of these trompe l’oeil paintings? Can you see any similarities between them? What do you think of their subject matter? Can you think of any other trompe l’oeil painters? Have you heard of Michael Theise (b.1959) a contemporary Connecticut trompe l’oeil artist? What do you think of the fact that this former NEW/NOW artist uses the traditional trompe l’oeil technique today?