William Michael Harnett was born in Country Cork, Ireland, specifically in the town of Clonakilty, in August 1848. His family was fleeing from the Great Hunger that struck the country, and they headed to the USA soon after his birth. William later became the most prominent name of still-life trompe-l’oeil paintings.
Harnett and his family moved to Philadelphia, and he was recognized as a US citizen by the age of twenty. By this time, he was not producing oil paintings yet, as he initially worked by engraving silverware with designs. The young artist began his formal education at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. His first documented oil painting was dated in 1874 and is a still-life, what came to be his specialty. The Irish-American painter eventually went to New York to deepen his studies at the National Academy of Design and the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.
The young artist produced mostly still-life paintings throughout his career, creating intimate scenes with a variety of objects, like books, pipes, musical instruments, among others. He specialized in a technique called trompe-l’oeil, meaning to deceive the eye in French, meaning his paintings had an extreme level of realism, depth, and detail. There was a strong culture of realistic tabletop still-life paintings within Dutch artists of the XVII century, like Pieter Claesz, who influenced Harnett’s production.
Before Harnett, in the early 1800s, Raphaelle Peale was producing this style of painting in America but mostly focused on objects commonly used in still-lifes, like fruits, cups, plants, and food in general. Harnett brought a new perspective to still-lifes, introducing unconventional objects in his work, like a plucked chicken in For Sunday’s Dinner, a rusty horseshoe in The Golden Horseshoe, and a messy pile of books in Job Lot Cheap, to name a few.
Harnett’s work became extremely popular within the public, but not so much within the artistic community. Still-life paintings, in general, weren’t seen as a higher form of art within Academic terms, compared to work portraying religious or mythological subjects, or even genre paintings. Even though during this time wasn’t exhibiting work at museums, the artist was selling a large number of paintings to his public.
In 1880, William went to Munich, where he lived for six years. During this period, he traveled through Europe, visiting places like Frankfurt, London, and Paris. This was a significant time for Harnett, as he concluded a series of hunting themed still-life paintings. The works After the Hunt, After the Hunt I, After the Hunt 1884, and After the Hunt III all portray similar compositions with hunting materials, like knives and riffles, as well as the animals caught during the adventure. All of the paintings depict the objects hung on an antique door, with rustic details, as well as the hunter’s hat and horn. The series was hugely successful.
By the end of his life, Harnett was effected by chronic rheumatic disorder, causing intense joint pain. Although he decreased the of paintings he produced, he never lost his impeccable trompe-l’oeil technique.
William Michael Harnett passed away in October 1892 in New York City.