To late-nineteenth-century viewers in an age of industrialization and progress, William Michael Harnett’s Old Models was a nostalgic tribute to the unhurried cultural pursuits of a bygone era. Harnett, the talented leader of the group of late-nineteenth-century illusionistic still-life...
To late-nineteenth-century viewers in an age of industrialization and progress, William Michael Harnett’s Old Models was a nostalgic tribute to the unhurried cultural pursuits of a bygone era. Harnett, the talented leader of the group of late-nineteenth-century illusionistic still-life painters that included John Frederick Peto [62.278] and John Haberle [1984.163], trained initially as a silverware engraver, which undoubtedly shaped his later precise style of painting. He then studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Cooper Union in New York before spending six years working in Munich and, for a short time, Paris. In Europe, Harnett examined in particular the work of seventeenth-century Dutch painters. Old Models is one of Harnett’s best compositions, representative of his trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) style and his typical subject matter. Harnett created the painting for display in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a great world’s fair to be held in Chicago. To ensure that his work would be noticed, he selected a large vertical canvas and composed a monumental still life that he crafted with brilliant technical virtuosity. Instruments, sheet music, and books—emblems of civilized leisure activities—are bathed in a golden light evoking such old masters as Rembrandt. An amateur flute player, Harnett owned a collection of musical instruments that he frequently used as props. The violin, realistically covered with rosin dust, was described in his estate sale as “Cremona Violin . . . ‘Joseph Guarnerius, fecit. Cremona, anno 1724’ . . . procured by Mr. Harnett at a great cost from a celebrated collection in Paris.” Although it was probably not a genuine Guarneri, the violin as well as the other objects appealed to nineteenth-century patrons fond of collecting antiques and bric-a-brac. The keyed bugle, dented and tarnished, was a simplified version of the instrument portrayed in several earlier works. Behind the bugle, Harnett included a tattered copy of 50 mélodies pour violon; the sheet music hanging over the shelf is Thomas Moore’s “’Tis the Last Rose of Summer,” a sentimental Irish ballad that evokes Harnett’s country of birth and perhaps alludes to the ill health that had dogged him in the preceding three years. Harnett also included Shakespeare’s Tragedies, Homer’s Odyssey, and a seventeenth-century medical reference book, all of which may also refer to the trials of his illness. The dusty, worn, and dilapidated objects are “old” in two senses: they bear signs of the passage of time, and they had been used as props in Harnett’s previous paintings. Likewise, they are “models” in that they are both subjects for artistic representation and exemplars of a contemplative and musical life. Old Models turned out to be Harnett’s valedictory painting, as he died of kidney disease in 1892 at the age of forty-four. Although the work was never exhibited in Chicago, it was shown posthumously at the St. Louis Exposition of 1896. This text was adapted from Elliot Bostwick Davis et al., American Painting [http://www.mfashop.com/9020398034.html], MFA Highlights (Boston: MFA Publications, 2003).
Lower left: WMHarnett./1892. [WMH in monogram]
1892, estate of the artist; February 23-24, 1893, Harnett Estate Sale, Thomas Birch's Sons, Philadelphia, lot 27. 1893, with M. Knoedler Gallery, New York. February 1-2, 1898, A. Ludwig Collection Sale, Fifth Avenue Art Galleries, New York, lot 93. 1926, with George E. Kelley, Gimbel Brothers, Philadelphia; 1926, sold by George E. Kelley to William J. Hughes (1863-1938), Washington, D.C.; 1939, sold by the estate of William J. Hughes to Downtown Galleries, New York; 1939, sold by Downtown Galleries to the MFA for $4,000. (Accession Date: November 9, 1939)
The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund