32¢ William Harnett
Four Centuries of American Art
Issue Date: August 27, 1998
City: Santa Clara, CA
Printed By: Sennett Security Products
Printing Method: Photogravure
William Michael Harnett’s “fool-the-eye” realism made him a leading still-life painter of the late 1800s. He was one of the masters of trompe l’oeil, a style of painting that gives an illusion of photographic reality. Some of his favorite subjects were firearms, books, and musical instruments.
As a child Harnett moved from Ireland, where he was born in 1848, to Philadelphia. He later trained as an engraver, and attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. By 1880, he had saved enough money to travel to Europe, visiting London, Frankfurt, Munich, and finally Paris, where he painted his best-known work, After the Hunt (1885). He returned to the United States in 1886, and lived in New York City until his death.
Money was also a favorite subject of Harnett’s. He was able to create a reproduction of a flat, crinkled bill that could easily deceive the eye. So easily that in 1886, the U.S. Treasury confiscated a Harnett painting of a five-dollar bill from the wall of a New York tavern and attempted to arrest the artist for forgery. He managed to talk his way out of being imprisoned.
By the late 1880s, illness prevented Harnett from painting. His work was largely forgotten after his death from kidney failure in 1892.