WILLIAM MICHAEL HARNETT (1848–1892)
Oil on mahogany panel, 11 x 14 1/2 in.
Signed and dated (at lower right): WMHARNETT / 1885
RECORDED: Forty Masterworks of American Art, exhib. cat. (New York: Hirschl and Adler Galleries, 1970), pp. , 43, no. 30 illus. in color
EXHIBITED: Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York, Forty Masterworks of American Art, October 28–November 14, 1970, p. 43 no. 30 // Hunter Museum of American Art, Chattanooga, Tennessee, The Alice E. and Joseph Davenport, Jr. Collection, April 10–June 7, 2015
EX COLL.: [B. Cohen & Sons, London]; to [Hirschl and Adler Galleries, New York, 1970]; to Alice and Joseph Davenport, Jr., Chattanooga, Tennessee, 1970–2015
Music features the iconographical elements that Harnett favored during his years abroad and reveals his interest in Dutch vanitas painting of the seventeenth century, wherein elements such as books, decorative objects, and musical instruments were used to make emblematic statements relative to the fleeting quality of life and the vanity of material goods. The work was executed on a wood panel bearing the stamp of Lefranc et Cie, an art supply shop located in Paris’s 1st arrondissement, near the Louvre, which would suggest that it was created during Harnett’s sojourn in the French capital. Indeed, Harnett later told a reporter that during his six months in Paris, he “sent several pictures to England,” and Music, whose provenance can be traced back to a private collection in that country, was presumably one of them.
This intimate vignette also underscores Harnett’s interest in creating “artful” designs and his interest in storytelling. Indeed, the components of the still life are all related to the pursuit of culture––among them a violin resting on some tattered sheet music (both of which allude to the pleasures of the senses), a brass candlestick holder (a sign of wealth), and some books (symbols of learning and one of the artist’s favorite props)––their unstable arrangement on the table suggesting that the studious individual who was using them has momentarily slipped away. Harnett enhances the illusionary quality of the painting and adds a note of ambiguity to the arrangement by including a detached book cover within this mélange of precariously placed objects, connecting it to a vellum-covered volume of Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) (first published in 1581) by a single strand of thread.