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Title: Show and Tell: Representation, Communication, and the Still Lifes of William M. Harnett
Authors: Elder, Nicole
Advisors: DeLue, Rachael Z.
Contributors: Art and Archaeology Department
Keywords: America
Nineteenth Century
Still Life
Trompe L'Oeil
William Harnett
Subjects: Art history
American studies
Issue Date: 2013
Publisher: Princeton, NJ : Princeton University
Abstract: William Harnett is best known for his incredibly realistic paintings of inanimate objects like an aged edition of <italic> Don Quixote </italic> and a Colt .44 revolver. The imperceptible brushwork with which he depicted these subjects has prompted scholars to categorize his paintings as works of <italic> trompe l'oeil </italic> that trained viewers to see through the deceptions that pervaded modern American life. But Harnett's output was incredibly diverse and readily divides into relatively distinct periods based on the successive subjects that he took up and the compositional adjustments that accompanied them. I analyze these stages, which span the breadth of the artist's career, in conjunction with period images, objects, and discourses in order to understand what it meant, as well as how it became possible, to make a <italic> painting </italic> (a still life) of things like texts and tools in late&ndash;nineteenth&ndash;century America. In fields as varied as the decorative arts, ethnography, and rhetoric&mdash;to cite just a few of the disciplines with which I put Harnett's work into dialogue&mdash;man&ndash;made things provided insight into the people who made and used them. I argue that Harnett investigated how such objects signified and adopted their rhetorical and technical strategies such that his paintings (like their ostensible subjects) were inscribed with and represented the mind at work. Although Harnett left no <italic> written </italic>records that can testify to his interest in this project, it challenges the illustrational quality of mid&ndash;century American landscape and genre paintings by exploiting the physical act, materials, and distinctly visual properties of painting. As such, his work, career, and the important ways that they intersect with those of other artists like Thomas Eakins and William Merritt Chase suggest that terms like &ldquo;realism&rdquo; and &ldquo;illusionism&rdquo; and the late&ndash;nineteenth&ndash;century works categorized by them have less to do with what a painting looked like than how it was made and the cognitive implications of this process for both artist and viewer alike.
Alternate format: The Mudd Manuscript Library retains one bound copy of each dissertation. Search for these copies in the library's main catalog
Type of Material: Academic dissertations (Ph.D.)
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Art and Archaeology

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