PRINT October 1965

Harnett, Peto, Haberle

“AS OUR TASTE EXPANDS, THE PAST GROWS WITH IT, somehow always ahead.” So said James Thrall Soby in a piece he published when he was art critic of the Saturday Review. The present exhibitions signalizes some phase of that growth. It is the first exhibition ever held to concentrate on the three giants of American still life painting at the end of the 19th century: William Michael Harnett, John Frederick Peto, and John Haberle.

Twenty years ago only the name and work of Harnett were known. Ten years ago that neat, simple picture was most confusedly shattered, as the result of research by the writer of these lines, with the sudden emergence from the past of a whole, large school of American still life painters who had been totally forgotten. Today, while interest is still justifiably high in the work of artists like Jefferson David Chalfant, Richard LaBarre Goodwin, and George W. Platt, we are able, as formerly we were not, to see the difference between the peaks and the hills.

The perspective of time has given us a trio of three major American still life specialists—Harnett, Peto, Haberle—similar in its own way to the more broadly contrasted trio of Homer, Ryder, and Eakins who were their contemporaries. The perspective of time also permits us to re-evaluate these artists and give each the distinctive place which his individuality demands.

Two traditions were of special importance in forming the personality of William Michael Harnett. One was the tradition of craftsmanship to which all of his family subscribed. His father was a shoemaker, his brother a saddle maker, his sisters seamstresses; and William Michael began his own career as an engraver in the silversmithing shops of New York and Philadelphia. He grew up in the latter city and there came into contact with the second of the major traditions that moulded him.

In the first quarter of the 19th century, Raphaelle Peale of Philadelphia evolved a very distinctive still life style—small in scale, extremely precise in drawing, exploiting the appeal of simple, commonplace, humble objects arranged in a generally pyramidal fashion on a bare table top against a background of empty space, with very heavy emphasis on the contrast between the surface textures of the objects depicted—glassware, porcelain, stoneware, fruits, and things made of metal and wood. Harnett begins precisely where Raphaelle Peale leaves off, but—and mark this well—half a century later.

Peale died in 1825. Harnett began to paint in 1874. His taste was half a century behind that of his time, and this is a fact of crucial importance with regard to him and the entire school to which he belonged. These painters were old-fashioned; they appealed to an audience whose standards were long out of date, aid for this reason they were either overlooked or derided by the criticism of their time. To assume, as many have in our own day, that their work is typical of the standards of their era is an historical error of catastrophic proportions.

Now and then—it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen once in a while—an artist will fall so far behind the procession of his times as to perform a kind of circumnavigation in reverse and come back at the head of the procession as the latest thing. This is what happened in the case of William Michael Harnett in 1939. In that year he was re-introduced to the general public with an enormously successful exhibition at the Downtown Gallery in New York. He had died in 1892, and in the succeeding years his reputation, such as it had been, had gradually evaporated; by 1939 no one, in the art world at least, remembered him at all. But the Precisionism of painters like Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth and the Surrealism of painters like Salvador Dali and Pierre Roy had created exactly the atmosphere of taste wherein Harnett’s work, with its craftsmanly realism and its Surrealistic overtones, would find acceptance.

The exhibition of 1939 was a huge hit, and Harnett was briefly accorded a unique position in American art history: he was regarded as a modern painter who had somehow strayed into the wrong century. Far from being thought old-fashioned, as had been the case in his lifetime, he was now discussed as if he had been a modern Precisionist, Cubist, and Surrealist all rolled into one. Modern appreciations of the artists of the past are, of course, extremely valuable, especially when they are contrasted with the evaluations made of them in their own time. In the case of Harnett, however, this contrast was never attempted, with the result that half of the paintings which established his new reputation in 1939 were not by him at all, but by other artists of his time, and bore forged Harnett signatures. Some of these are still on the paintings in the present show.

Harnett’s career was short. It lasted only 18 years and falls into three six-year periods—1874 to 1880, mostly in Philadelphia; 1880 to 1886, in Europe, principally in Munich; 1886 to the artist’s death in 1892, entirely in New York.

The first period is especially one of small, Peale like, table top still lifes stressing such humble subject matter as a mug, a pipe, and a newspaper or book, an inkwell, a quill pen, and a partially legible letter. But Harnett dealt with other subjects, too, in this first period, and it reaches its climax with the great Artist’s Card Rack of 1879.

This represents an old but not very common still life tradition which can be traced back to the 16th century. Harnett’s example of it—the only one he is known to have painted—is also a perfect example both of his abstraction and his Surrealism. Mondrian himself could scarcely have made a more brilliant, asymmetrical composition of flat rectangles, while Rene Magritte or some similar Surrealist might have conceived the idea, which Harnett exploits here, of addressing a whole series of postcards and envelopes to various people and then placing them under the tapes of the rack in such fashion that the crucial word or the crucial syllable is invariably covered; everything looks as if it ought to be legible and the painting hints at the slightly sinful pleasure of reading someone else’s correspondence, but then it balks that pleasure by the fact that nothing can really be read in it at all.

Europe had a very profound effect on Harnett. He started his work there in 1880 with a series of tabletop still lifes similar to the old ones in subject matter but entirely new in style: they are miniaturistic in size and sparkle throughout with free little highlights of paint. Harnett also worked with the human figure while he was in Europe, to a markedly greater degree than he had at home; but the most important changes, suggested in the present exhibition by such pictures as A Study Table and the several versions of After the Hunt, are embodied in still lifes of considerable size.

A new type of subject matter appears. Some simple objects remain, but now the scene is filled with things that look rare and expensive—armor, old tankards, medieval books, tapestries, Turkish rugs, jewel boxes, and so on. A strong vein of German romanticism manifests itself in the medieval guns and swords, the hunting horns, feathered hats, and elaborately hinged doors of After the Hunt; these paintings were, in all probability, adapted from a series of photographs by the famous Alsatian camera artist, Adolphe Braun.

Harnett ultimately painted more pictures of the type of A Study Table than any other. Here the objects are arranged on the table top in a specifically pyramidal fashion: they move backward and upward from the table’s edge. This backward and upward movement is counter-thrusted by the downward and forward motion of a newspaper, a sheet of music, or both, that hangs over the edge, and the edge itself acts as a kind of horizontal stabilizer for the whole. The background is no longer empty space but is boxed in by a paneled wall; often there is a deep, dark recess on the right-hand side. This formula is very common in the Dutch still life painting of the 17th century. It did not appear in Harnett until he went to Europe, and thereafter, as is observed above, he used it more often than any other. Obviously, he learned it in the European galleries.

There is little or no change in Harnett’s style after his return from Europe. His rate of production declined because of bad health; there were several years in the New York period when he painted little or nothing. The only shift of importance is in subject matter. He returns occasionally to an American vernacular type of theme—a big horseshoe or a “Faithful Colt.” But the fancier subjects, the antiques and rarities, continue through this period as well.

These fancier subjects had great appeal for the collectors, old-fashioned in taste, who bought Harnett’s pictures in his own time. The humbler subjects have more appeal for us today. Theoretically we of the present are not supposed to judge paintings by their subject matter, but in actuality subject is one of the things we take into account. Some aspects of Harnett therefore seem to us gaudy and excessively ornate—but whatever the subject, Harnett’s work is full of the reminiscence of the American past, a past supposedly innocent, but revealed here as subtle, complex, and strangely magical.

As is pointed out above, a considerable number of paintings attributed to Harnett in the early days of the revival turned out on investigation to be works by obscure contemporaries to which Harnett’s name had been forged. This fraud was committed by unscrupulous dealers in Philadelphia not long after Harnett’s death, and no one now alive was involved in it. Harnett still had some reputation in those days, and pictures bearing his name could be sold for something; artists like John Frederick Peto, however, had no reputation at all and could scarcely give their paintings away; I have seen pictures by Peto bearing price tags of three and four dollars in the artist’s own handwriting.

Peto had lived in the same general area as Harnett, had gone to school with him at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, had observed his success with interest, and had imitated a few of his motifs, notably the card rack and the mug-and-pipe picture. The forgery was therefore easy to commit. The method whereby it was detected was very complicated and cannot be discussed here; it is set forth in detail in my book, After the Hunt (University of California Press, 1953). Once the distinction between Harnett and Peto is made, however, as it is in this exhibition, their styles seem so totally different that one finds it difficult to believe that any confusion between them could ever have existed. But one must add that while more paintings by Peto have been falsified as Harnett than works of any other artist, Peto is by no means the only painter whose work has been treated in this way. The “Harnetts” with forged signatures are by at least thirty different hands.

John Frederick Peto was born in Philadelphia in 1854, received his education there, and started to paint there in 1875. In 1889 he moved to Island Heights, New Jersey, and there he remained until his death in 1907. Island Heights was a camp-meeting town, and Peto went there primarily to lead the singing with his cornet. He painted in a haphazard, disorderly way, left piles of unfinished pictures, and gave away stacks of them to his neighbors. Harnett, by contrast, was an extremely systematic person. He finished everything and dated everything, and the progress of his style can be traced very clearly from year to year. Peto’s work, on the other hand, is a shapeless heap, with relatively few clues as regards chronology.

Several things are clear, however. One of these things is that Peto is peculiarly the master of the rack picture. Harnett, apparently, painted only one such picture in his life, but Peto took his cue from it and painted dozens more. One of these, almost identical with his Old Time Letter Rack of the present exhibition, was given to the Museum of Modern Art in New York as a Harnett, has been reproduced more often than any other picture of its class, and is without much question the most famous rack picture in the world. Harnett reaped much unjust credit for this work for many years.

Peto is also a master of the simple, the commonplace, the humble, and the ordinary. He never painted the antiques and the fancy bric-a-brac of Harnett’s middle and late years. This, I am convinced, was the main reason for his failure with the public in his own time and the main reason for his success with many elements of the public today.

Peto’s drawing before Island Heights is likely to be somewhat loose, stringy, and confused. After 1880 his draftsmanship tightens considerably, and his paint takes on a soft, radiant, ground-glassy quality which has caused some to compare him to Vermeer. But Peto totally lacks Harnett’s fascination with varied and contrasted textures. Where Harnett goes to extravagant length to differentiate between the tactile qualities of wood, paper, ceramics, fur, ivory, textiles, iron, silver, leather, fruit, skins, candle wax, and so on, Peto renders all these things in precisely the same texture; in other words, he is more concerned with purely pictorial values than with the imitation of natural appearances.

But the most striking characteristic of Peto’s style, especially in contrast to Harnett’s, is the baroque restlessness of his composition. Harnett’s objects are by no means invariably at ease, but the whole effect of his work is eminently reposeful compared to the acrobatics of Peto. Except in his small table-top pictures, nothing is ever at rest in Peto’s work; everything slides, falls, dangles, or balances in the most precarious and alarming fashion. His lighting, also, is intensely dramatic, picks up bits of this and spots of that and casts the rest into deep shadow. The objects he chooses to paint are not only commonplace but frequently torn, burned, ripped, or otherwise violated. There is a strong undercurrent of violence in his still life. In a sense he is a forerunner of Rauschenberg and other moderns who treasure the wasted and derelict objects of modern life. In spirit he also has strong ties with those other great American isolates of his own time, Homer, Ryder, and Eakins. John Frederick Peto, in other words, stands more in the main stream of American painting than does William Michael Harnett.

John Haberle has never been confused with Harnett and no works of his have ever been forged with Harnett’s name, but he is of the same general school as the two other masters dealt with in this exhibition. He was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1856 and died there in 1933. He was a member of the technical staff at the paleontological museum of Yale University, and the 19th-century controversies of science and religion are hinted in a number of his paintings, notably the irreverent Time and Eternity, with its rosary beads, its playing cards, and its reference to Robert Ingersoll, the atheist preacher.

Haberle is especially the master of trompe I’oeil among the three painters of our show. He is the only one of the three who regularly, repeatedly, habitually—and most successfully—tries to fool the eye of the beholder into taking a painted representation of a thing for the real thing. He achieves this effect with a number of devices, but especially by avoiding deep space. Invariably the eye is immediately stopped in its backward progress by a door, wall, or flat barrier of some kind. The objects hanging against this door, wall, or barrier are so modeled as to suggest that they protrude into the spectator’s space (Japanese Doll, or the above-mentioned Time and Eternity), or else they are entirely flat and are not modeled at all. Harnett and Peto also use these devices, and quite frequently, but they also exploit deep space, especially in their table top still lifes. Haberle, however, never painted a tabletop in his entire career. Everything he did in the domain of still life is almost entirely two-dimensional. Even when he paints the contents of A Bachelor’s Drawer he depicts the objects fixed to the flat front of the drawer in a most abnormal not to say impossible way, rather than inside it. There are sound psychological and physiological reasons for the avoidance of deep space and the emphasis upon flat objects on the part of eye-fooling “realists,” but once again I must refer the reader to my book for a discussion of them; there is no room for that discussion here.

The need for the two-dimensional is, incidentally, the main reason for the persistent painting of paper money by all the artists of the present show. It has nothing to do with the value of the money as such; indeed, Haberle and his contemporaries frequently painted Confederate money, which had just been devaluated in their time and was the proverbial symbol of utter worthlessness at that period.

Haberle is the great vernacularist of 19th-century American painting. He is actually the first Pop artist, and a detailed look at a picture like A Bachelor’s Drawer will reveal some astonishing parallels to the work of the modern Pop Art school.

In the center of the painting, for example, is the lid of a cigar box, painted with the most fanatical detail in every curlicue of its engraved labels and revenue stamps. This is held to the drawer by means of a yellow ribbon looped around a nail at the top and two little leather hinges along the bottom edge. This hinged cigar-box lid is a crude container behind which are held a corncob pipe, an old comb, a small corked bottle, an envelope torn open at its right-hand end, a label or baggage check of some sort with a tasseled cord attached to it, and, at the extreme left-hand side, a loop of shoelace. Why does an artist paint a conglomeration like that? He is, I think, debunking the high falutin’-ness of art, the notion that art must confine itself to a limited, “noble” subject matter and precious materials; as I put it in my book, “where some of his contemporaries fling their bold artistic challenge in the face of the vast grandeurs of the Rockies, Haberle fishes a comb, a ticket stub, or a canceled stamp out of his pocket and bids us marvel at that.”

This is precisely the kind of debunking of cultural pretension that fills Mark Twain’s books about his travels abroad; and both Haberle and Twain would have understood Allan Kaprow, critic and inventor of the Happening, when, in predicting where art would go after the death of Jackson Pollock, he said, “Objects of every sort are materials for the new art: paint, chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies, a thousand other things which will be discovered by the present generation of artists.” But the analogy between the passage in A Bachelor’s Drawer just described and the painted Coca-Cola bottles and Campbell’s soup cans of Andy Warhol is even more remarkable.

We have already mentioned paper money, of which there is much in A Bachelor’s Drawer; it seems almost superfluous to add that the Pop artists are painting paper money again, as well as the stamps, and playing cards beloved of Haberle and his colleagues. The largest thing in A Bachelor’s Drawer, is a cheap colored engraving of a dandy with fancy whiskers and hair-do. The analogy with Roy Lichtenstein and his Pop Art emphasis on comic-book illustration is obvious enough. Haberle’s bachelor liked cheap nudity, as witness the photograph so modestly draped with a band from a package of envelopes; the parallel to Mel Ramos and his Pop Art cuties is clear. Going outside A Bachelor’s Drawer it is worth observing that Haberle paints his own palette; so does the Pop artist, Jim Dine. Haberle paints street signs. So do Pop artists as diverse as Robert Indiana and James Rosenquist. And it is scarcely news that a palette is as flat as a dollar bill and that practically everything painted by the Pop artists is strictly two dimensional; even the landscapes of Lichtenstein lack specific depth.

Haberle, like the Pop artists, had a keenly satiric mind and a fine sense of the absurd. The parallels one can draw between his work and that of the present day confer a sense of historic continuity on the recent painting and reveal new, contemporary meanings in the old. To throw such bridges from past to present is one of the most important things an exhibition like this one can accomplish.

Alfred Frankenstein