Admired for his trompe l’oeil style, American painter William Harnett (1848–1892) was as intellectually ambitious as he was technically skilled. The first scholarly monograph on the artist, William Harnett’s Curious Objects details Harnett’s career-long effort to position still life as a serious art.
Nika Elder elevates the significance of Harnett’s academic training and questions his apparent turn away from it. Reading his still lifes in relation to wartime visual culture, literary realism, museum display, and industrial design, she shows how Harnett experimented with inanimate objects and pictorial techniques to represent the human condition without depicting the human body. His paintings illustrate late nineteenth-century American material culture, but they also represent Reconstruction, interiority, death and life, and the imagination. By engaging such lofty themes, Harnett reimagined history painting for the modern era. His work thus locates Gilded Age art and culture in the long shadow of the Civil War and its politics.