WILLIAM MICHAEL HARNETT (1848–1892)
The Smoker’s Companions, 1878
Oil on canvas, 9 x 12 in.
Signed and dated (at lower left): WMHARNETT / 1878 [initials in monogram]
RECORDED: Doreen Bolger, Marc Simpson, and John Wilmerding, eds., William Michael Harnett, exhib. cat. (Fort Worth, Texas: Amon Carter Museum, 1992), p. 272 fig. 129 illus., 311
EXHIBITED: Seventh Regiment New Armory Fair, New York, November 17–December 1879, Loan Art Exhibition, Consisting of Choice Examples of the Modern Foreign and American Schools of Painting, Rare Etchings, Engravings and Other Art Works, no. 195A // Kennedy Galleries, New York, May 1989, Kennedy Galleries Presents Fifteen Superb and Rare American Masterpieces, illus. in color
EX. COLL.: sale, Christie, Manson & Woods International, New York, May 23, 1979, no. 24; [Kennedy Galleries, New York]; to private collection, Los Angeles, California, 2003 until the present
Painted in 1878, The Smoker's Companions features an opened box of Caporal tobacco with a torn label on one side, as well as a meerschaum pipe that appears in other oils from this period, such as Still Life (1877; Chrysler Museum, Norfolk, Virginia). The gently curving stem of the pipe rests against a worn copy of Samuel Butler’s Hudibras (originally published in London in 1663, 1664, and 1678, in three parts), a satirical poem that relates the humorous misadventures of Sir Hudibras, a Presbyterian knight from Oliver Cromwell’s army who, accompanied by his squire, Ralpho (a religious independent), attempts to rid the world of sin. Harnett’s inclusion of this popular publication in his grouping is not surprising: as Judy L. Larson has observed, Hudibras’s and Ralpho’s bickering about religion bring to mind the “duality of the ideal versus the actual, or the visionary versus the practical,” issues that attracted the attention of many Americans of the late nineteenth century as they grappled with matters of faith and science, Harnett (a Catholic) among them (see Judy L. Larson, “Literary References in Harnett’s Still-Life Paintings,” in Doreen Bolger et al., William Michael Harnett, p. 272).
The Smoker’s Companions also includes some fresh matches spilling from an overturned box and a burnt one to the side, its presence suggesting that the smoker may have abandoned the solitary pleasures of smoking and reading and moved on to another pursuit. The close-up vantage point is typical of Harnett’s still lifes from the late 1870s, as is his rich palette and his use of an unadorned backdrop that gets progressively darker towards the left. Harnett once said that he selected props that showed “the mellowing effect of age,” an approach that allowed him to use his hard-edged manner to evoke a diversity of textures, in this case the frayed edges of the tobacco box and the minute striations in the pipe, as well as the delicate gilding on the spine of Butler’s book. Harnett’s penchant for using both readable and illegible writing in his still lifes is also evident, especially in his rendering of the matchbox, where, despite being upside down, the word “Baltimore” is easily read, while the information above it invites closer inspection on the part of the viewer.
The Smoker’s Companions was one of two oils Harnett contributed to the Loan Art Exhibition, Consisting of Choice Examples of the Modern Foreign and American Schools of Painting, held at The Seventh Regiment Armory in New York in 1879, where it was one of a limited number of works––“direct from the Studios”––that were offered for sale. (The other Harnett still life in the show was entitled Bric-a-Brac.) Indeed, steady patronage from collectors in New York and Philadelphia allowed Harnett embark on an extended trip to Europe in 1880, during which time he visited London and Frankfurt before settling in Munich in early 1881. There, while his American cohorts were exploring the painterly manner associated with Munich realism, Harnett studied the work of the Old Masters (including Dutch still-life paintings of the 17th century) and continued to focus on aesthetic clarity, imbuing his oils with an even greater degree of exactitude and finesse. He also abandoned the simplified designs and humble motifs that characterized his work of the late 1870s, turning his attention to ornate compositions featuring the exotic Old World antiques he acquired while abroad, depicting them against fine draperies or oriental rugs set on marble or wooden tabletops, often against a paneled backdrop.