William Michael Harnett (American, 1848–1892)
The Meerschaum Pipe, 1886
Oil on canvas
17 ⅛ x 12 ⅛ in. (43.5 x 30.8 cm)

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In The Meerschaum Pipe, an accessory of a “man’s world” is presented in stark isolation against a dark, splintered wooden backdrop. The scene is mysteriously tempered by what appears to be a small classified notice from a newspaper affixed to the wall. While any narrative relation between the two objects remains elusive, each form seems to reinforce the distinct and literal thing-ness of the other. As is often the case within Harnett’s oeuvre, the artist’s signature appears “carved” into the planar wood surface, which is rendered as meticulously as the picture’s ostensible subjects. The fact that the work was made using oil on canvas, not on panel, adds further to its expression of wit. Harnett’s painting tends to draw upon an American vernacular, but also alludes to a more traditional and symbolic vanitas theme, reflecting a late 19th-century preoccupation with mortality and the fleeting rewards of material wealth, often associated with expensive and newly manufactured goods.

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