William Michael Harnett USA

8-10-1848 Clonakilty, IRE – 10-29-1892 New York, USA

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Harnett, William Michael

William Michael Harnett was born in Ireland during the time of the potato famine. Shortly after his birth his family emigrated to America, settling in Philadelphia. He made a living as a young man by engraving designs on table silver, while also taking night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and later, in New York, at Cooper Union and at the National Academy of Design.

The style of trompe-l'œil painting that Harnett developed was distinctive and inspired many imitators, but it was not without precedent. A number of 17th century Dutch painters, Pieter Claesz for instance, had specialized in tabletop still life of astonishing verisimilitude. Raphaelle Peale, working in Philadelphia in the early 19th century, pioneered the form in America.

His works sold well, but they were more likely to be found hanging in a tavern or a business office than in a museum, as they did not conform to contemporary notions of high art.

William Michael Harnett spent the years 1880–1886 in Europe, staying in Munich from 1881 until early 1885. These paintings, like the horseshoe or currency depictions mentioned earlier, are especially effective as trompe-l'œil because the objects occupy a shallow space, meaning that the illusion is not spoiled by parallax shift if the viewer moves.

Crippling rheumatism plagued William Michael Harnett in his last years, reducing the number but not the quality of his painting.

Movement: Realism
Influences: Pieter Claesz, Raphaelle Peale
Traveled: Germany
Influenced: John Haberle, Otis Kaye, Jefferson David Chalfant
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