DescriptionWILLIAM MICHAEL HARNETT (American, 1848-1892)
Still Life with Portrait by Raphael, 1878
Oil on canvas
28 x 34-1/4 inches (71.1 x 87.0 cm)
Signed with monogram and dated lower left: WM Harnett / 1878
Mr. William H. Folwell, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania;
Nathan Thomas Folwell, son of the above, by descent from the above;
Mrs. Natalie Folwell Thomson, granddaughther of William Folwell, New York, by descent from the above;
Private collection, Lee, Massachusetts, acquired from the above.
Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, New York, on long-term loan from the present owner, 1988.
A. Frankenstein, After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870-1900, Berkeley, California, 1969, pp. 46, 168, no. 37, illustrated;
D. Bolger et al., William M. Harnett, exhibition catalogue, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1992, p. 246, fig. 111, illustrated.
William Michael Harnett painted Still Life with Portrait by Raphael, the only work in his oeuvre featuring a portrait, in 1878 at the beginning of his career, when he was establishing his patronage in Philadelphia. Although Harnett was from a poor, Irish Catholic family, most of his patrons were middle-class Protestant businessmen, notably dry-goods merchants, hotel proprietors, bankers, brewers, and railroad men. This self-made and industrious demographic valued not merely the content of Harnett's still lifes - assemblages of masculine, commerce-related objects, such as coins and bills, smoking pipes, books, business cards, letters, and newspapers - but also their hard-edged, almost mechanical realism, which equally connoted the business world. Challenging the high-art convention of his day, Harnett even exhibited his paintings in spaces frequented by his businessmen patrons: drugstores, saloons, factory offices, and department stores.
Harnett's most influential Philadelphia patron, the textile merchant William Hazelton Folwell, commissioned Still Life with Portrait by Raphael, evidenced on the canvas by the blue envelope, sandwiched between two books, bearing his name and address ([Pop]lar St.). William and his brother, Nathan, had established the city's leading dry-goods establishment, Folwell Brothers and Company, and they introduced Harnett to other wealthy patrons in their industry. Harnett produced at least four paintings for William, two of which are extant, the present work and Bric-a-Brac (Fogg Museum, Harvard University, fig. 1), and at least two works for Nathan, including Still Life for Nathan Folwell (Private collection), showcasing Nathan's books, Greek vase, bull's-eye watch, and bronze greyhound statuette. As a group, these still lifes, with their personal objects, point to the Folwells' collecting tastes, as well as to the larger cultural trends of the period.
Indeed, like many in their newly monied circles, the Folwells were avid collectors of "bric-a-brac," or decorative ceramics, metalwork, and glassware, both antiques and replicas, which they displayed throughout their homes. Still Life with Portrait by Raphael, which combines both Harnett's and William Folwell's own bric-a-brac, is best understood in relation to its companion piece, Bric-a-Brac, which Harnett also painted for him in 1878. Here, fourteen decorative objects from Folwell's collection, including two Greek vases, a Japanese saber, a Palestinian olivewood candlestick, a bronze bust of Minerva, a Wedgewood jar, a Persian bronze lamp stand, and china painted with Orientalist motifs, rest on a table. This particular assortment of "exotica" reflects the growing popularity of the Aesthetic movement, promoting quality design from diverse periods and geographic regions, introduced in America at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Consumers like Folwell and Harnett, inspired by the thousands of objects from around the world exhibited at the Exposition, voraciously started amassing bric-a-brac, Folwell, to affirm his wealth and culture, and Harnett, to gather props for his paintings. Many of the items in Bric-a-Brac are reproductions that Folwell would have sold in his own dry-goods store, suggesting that bric-a-brac collectors valued aesthetic design over authenticity (S. Yount, "Commodified Displays: The Bric-a-Brac Still Lifes," in D. Bolger et al., William M. Harnett, exhibition catalogue, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1992, p. 247).
Complementing Bric-a-Brac, Still Life with Portrait by Raphael rounds out the picture of Folwell as a man of culture. Painted in the same year, both are large-scale tabletop compositions presumably situated in a man's study, yet where Bric-a-Brac groups together decorative Eastern objects, Still Life with Portrait by Raphael highlights Western objects associated with the fine arts. In a classical pyramidal shape atop a sumptuous green baize tablecloth balance Raphael's famous Renaissance Portrait of Bindo Altoviti (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), scattered leather-bound books, a Lekythos-style vase, and a violin and bow. Harnett here represents the classical arts of painting (portrait), literature (books), music (violin), and sculpture (vase), and, through the letter addressed to Folwell, he emphasizes that these arts are a portrait of Folwell himself. In fact, Folwell is the modern-day Bindo Altoviti, like the wealthy Florentine banker, a cultured man who appreciates the sophisticated fine arts, not merely popular bric-a-brac.
Ultimately, Harnett references himself and his unique project of trompe-l'oeil painting in Still Life with Portrait by Raphael. With the exception of the Greek vase from Folwell's collection, all of the objects in the painting belonged to Harnett, including the framed copy of the Raphael portrait. Nineteenth-century scholars believed the Portrait of Bindo Altoviti to be a Raphael self-portrait, and Harnett may have included his own self-portrait, as well, in the violin, a signature object appearing in numerous of his paintings. However, at the same time that Harnett, in placing his self-portrait near Raphael's, elevates his own art, he just as quickly exposes certain inaccuracies or deceptions here. For example, his Portrait of Bindo Altoviti is clearly a fake - he alters the sitter's hair and placement of his hand - and the Greek vase, lacking its traditional handle and figurative decoration, is also a reproduction. In addition, the balancing of certain objects is mysterious, even improbable: What is supporting the portrait? A glossy sheen of newness coats the various objects even though they are supposed to be antiques, well-worn and long-studied. Far from oversights, these intentional "tricks" exemplify Harnett's mastery of trompe-l'oeil painting, a rare form of the traditional still life where "illusionism moves beyond convincingness to deception" (N. Cikovsky, Jr., "'Sordid Mechanics' and 'Monkey-Talents': The Illusionistic Tradition," in D. Bolger et al., William M. Harnett, exhibition catalogue, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1992, p. 20). On one level a tribute to William Folwell, Still Life with Portrait by Raphael may have also been Harnett's validation of trompe-l'oeil painting, placing it on a continuum with classical (Greek vase) and Renaissance (Raphael portrait) art.
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