William Michael Harnett (American, 1848–1892)
Study of a Pipe and Other Objects, 1874
Oil on canvas
11 ⅞ x 8 ⅝ in. (30.2 x 21.9 cm)


William Michael Harnett’s striking oil study is a variation within the more polished still life tradition, and one of hundreds made by 19th-century painters. These were often sought after by collectors during this time. Its unfinished appearance has its own charm and freshness, and offers a unique look into the artist’s working process.
This same composition could have been brought to completion in the more familiar illusionistic manner. In this instance, however, the humble objects, including a pipe and an apple, exist in a provisional, contingent space–not yet unified by perspective or surface finish. The incongruity of perspectives would give reason to the more common practice of arranging objects in a shallow, almost two-dimensional space for a “true” trompe l’oeil composition. Harnett instead surrounds the bowl and turnip with a brown tone that sharpens their shapes and separates them from the pale ground, something he chose not to do with the pipe. Each object has a slightly flat quality that allows it to occupy its own iconic space. Because of these visual contradictions, Harnett’s picture may unintentionally look rather free and modern to contemporary eyes. As a compelling comparison to this study, the museum curator has paired it in the gallery with another much more fully realized painting of a pipe by the same artist.

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