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A Study Table

On view

A Study Table

Artist: William Michael Harnett (Irish, 1848-1892)

Date: 1882
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 40 x 51 1/2in. (101.6 x 130.8cm)
Framed: 49 1/4 x 60 3/4 x 2 3/4in. (125.1 x 154.3cm)
Signed: Lower left: "W / M HARNETT / München / 1882"
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 57.67
Text Entries

Although Harnett is remembered most for his mastery of the trompe l’oeil technique, his use of symbols and symbolic address was by no means negligible. A Study Table, (1) for example, while remarkable for its fidelity to the look and feel of the visible world, may well demonstrate Harnett’s undying fascination with the theme of vanitas.(2) In keeping with a well-established pictorial tradition, certain objects in A Study Table may reflect upon the vanity of earthly existence: the old worn books could be read as symbols of learning; the helmet had associations of wealth and power; and the musical instruments and sheet music, the ivory tobacco box, and the tankard could allude to the pleasures of the senses.(3)

At the same time that Harnett captured the fabric of Dutch vanitas still lifes, he apparently endeavored to extend the traditional iconographic scheme. The fearsome skull is absent from A Study Table; but in its stead is a medieval helmet with empty eyeholes and a grim metallic visage that make up, in effect, a death’s head, reflecting the idea of the transience of human life. Likewise, the student lamp in the background, although a lighting device popular in Harnett’s time,(4) appears to replace the guttered candlestick and oil lamp that the artist’s predecessors had used as symbols of transience. The impression of time and change is emphasized at the left background by the flowers in bud, rather than fully developed. Completing the cycle of growth and decay in nature is a somewhat ominous beetle, shown lurking along the mouthpiece of the flute at the left foreground, which carries dark overtones of winter.(5)

Yet, carefully selected titles that give further meaning to the work may also bespeak the hope of resurrection. Thus the helmet, resting at the apex of the pyramidal composition, is juxtaposed to a large book inscribed “Biblia Sacra,” while at the base is Cervantes’s “Don Quixote/ Tome IV” and sheet music from Francois-Adrien Boieldieu’s popular opera La Dame Blanche.(6) It is hardly surprising that the title of Boieldieu’s opera refers to a woman whose ghost, it is believed, lives on in the Castle of Avenal. The idea of life after death is also to be found, significantly enough, at the very beginning of Book IV of Don Quixote (Second Part): It is in vain to expect uniformity in the affairs of this life; the whole seems rather to be in a course of perpetual change. The seasons from year to year run in their appointed circle—spring is succeeded by summer, summer by autumn, and autumn by winter, which is again followed by the season of renovation; and thus they perform their everlasting round. But man’s mortal career has no such renewal: from infancy to age it hastens onward to its end, and to the beginning of that state which has neither change nor termination.(7)

If these symbolic allusions are presented in recondite form, they are much enhanced by Harnett’s illusionist style. The worn books, the cracked flute, and the dented tankard, which bear witness to the effects of time, are rendered with an irrepressible realism that appeals directly to the viewer. Indeed, Harnett quite deliberately presented an image in which the torn cover of Don Quixote and the sheet music for La Dame Blanche hang over the table’s edge, as if reaching out to us. It is by this kind of illusionist effect, no less than by his use of a broad symbolic language, that Harnett made A Study Table a vivid and compelling emblematic statement.



1. This may, in fact, be the painting discussed in a newspaper clipping in the Blemly scrapbook which, according to a penciled note, was printed in the Munich Neueste Nachrichten in August 1882. It reads: “News from the Kunstverein. The exhibition at present is in the usual midsummer doldrums; thanks to this situation, a ‘still life’ takes first place this week. A fairly large picture by W. Harnett, Table with Books, Sheet Music and Musical Instruments, must be called a masterpiece of its type. It is scarcely possible to paint these objects with greater truth to nature and in a more pleasing manner. The partly yellowed music-sheets and the cracked flute worked in precious ivory provide more food for thought than any of your wooden, badly executed human figures.” Alfred Frankenstein, After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters 1870-1900 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: 1953; rev. ed., Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1975), p. 62, no. 34. The work illustrated as fig. 56 in Frankenstein’s book is not the painting in Utica for it lacks the tobacco case that is next to the stein in the center of the Institute’s painting.

2. In earlier pictures Harnett revealed an overt interest in the theme of "vanitas; for example, three times during the late 1870s he painted memento mori, which included such forthright reminders of death as a skull. Small wonder, for Harnett had ready access to seventeenth-century still lifes ill New York in the 1870s (including a Vanitas by Edwaert Collier in the newly established Metropolitan Museum of Art), and the influence of Dutch painting was to deepen during his residence in Europe in the 1880s. Harnett’s strong interest in the vanitas theme has been the subject of two recent studies: Barbara S. Groseclose presented a paper on “Vanity and the Artist: Some Still-Life Paintings of William Michael Harnett,” at the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute in November 1983 and published her comments under the same title in the American Art Journal, vol. 19, no. 1 (1987), pp. 51-59. The author delivered a paper entitled “William Michael Harnett’s The Old Cupboard: An Iconographic Interpretation” at the annual meeting of the College Art Association, Los Angeles, 1985. A revised version of this paper was published in the American Art Journal, vol. 18, no. 3 (1986), pp. 51—62.

3. For a summary of the three groups of objects that constitute the vanitas still life (symbols of earthly existence, transience, and resurrection), see Ingvar Bergstrom, Dutch Still-Life Painting in the Seventeenth Century, translated by Christina Hedstrom and Gerald Taylor (New York: Thomas Yoselhoff Inc., 1956), p. 154.

4. See Larry Freeman, Light on Old Lamps (Watkins Glen, N.Y.: Century House, 1946), chapter 6; and Lamps & Other Lighting Devices 1850- 1906, comp., The Editors of Pyne Press (Princeton, N.J.: The Pyne Press, 1972), p. 15.

5. For a discussion of the beetle as a symbol of earth and winter, see Leonard J. Slatkes, “Caravaggio‘s Boy Bitten by a Lizard,” Print Review, vol. 5 (1976), p. 151. The beetles’ associations with the winter season and decay continued into Harnett’s time. For example, according to Lantz’s Acme Encyclopedia and Dictionary: “Beetles feed on decaying substances, either animal or vegetable, and are often called the ‘scavengers of nature. . . .’ Beetles live but one season and die before winter, leaving nothing but their eggs to continue their species.” M.S. Lantz, The Acme Encyclopedia and Dictionary: A Practical Conipendium of Useful Information and Boole of References for Everybody (Philadelphia: Globe Publishing Co., 1884), p. 82.

6. Boieldieu’s La Dame Blanche was well-known in the late nineteenth century; between 1875 and 1914 the opera was performed close to seventeen hundred times (Nicolas Slonimsky, ed., Bakers Biographical Dictionary of Musicians [New York: G. Schirmer, 1958], p. 174).

7. Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Adventures of Don Quixote dc la Manchu, translated by Charles Jarvis (New York: John Wurtele Lovell, Publisher, 1880), book 4, chap. 53, p. 691.


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