While music related art has often found its way into several galleries and exhibitions, several in the still life tradition took a very intense look at the musical instruments themselves in their work. When American William M. Harnett (1848-1892) first established his unique trompe l’oeil style of still life in 1885 with his piece After the Hunt, its vertical orientation, change in subject relevance, and incredulous attention to detail sparked an international wave of imitators of his style, and several reproductions of his pieces. One of his most popular pieces (shown below) The Old Violin contained what came to be one of the most discussed objects of his career, an old cremona reproduction violin. Antiques were popular items to own during Harnett’s time, and old violins in particular held a certain attraction for creators, and clients alike, which no doubt encouraged Harnett’s purchase and portrayal of the instrument. However, his pieces containing it were so popular that many tried to copy his success by mimicking the work, sometimes even down to the incredibly fine details.
In still lifes produced from Harnett’s time through the early 20th century, specifically those containing violins as their subject matter, it is easy to see Harnett’s influence. Some tried to replicate the fine details of his instrument, breathing different life and music into their copies and utilizing the tension between reality and their illusion. Some wanted to test out the new art movements that were emerging with familiar subject matter. Regardless, the orientation and formal composition of Harnett’s trompe l’oeil paintings continued to impact artists well past his time.
The Old Violin, William Harnett, 1885, Oil on canvas, 1993.15.1 (National Gallery of Art)
A perfect example of Harnett’s trompe l’oeil style. As with many of his illusionist still lifes, he mounts his object vertically on a wall, displaying several angles at once and utilizing the shadow against the dark background to create the depth crucial to the effect. This is one of the first pieces where he showcases his violin, and the detail paid to the wear of the varnish, and the curl of the sheet music behind it is very intense. While definitely a detailed piece, it is not difficult to distinguish the illusion here with the slight haze over the piece and the blur between the music and the green background.
Music and Good Luck, William Harnett, 1888, Oil on canvas, 63.85 (The Met)
While The Old Violin might be Harnett’s best known work, this similar piece is no less popular. In a change from many of his other trompe l'oeil the background of this piece is lighter, and his attention to detail had developed in the three years since his Old Violin with his brush strokes becoming even smoother and the details even more fine. This piece really is hard to draw a line between illusion and reality with at first glance. As the size measures closely to real life proportions, viewers experiencing it hanging in a gallery for the first time, perhaps from midway in the room, could surely be fooled into thinking there really was an instrument hanging on the wall. Again, his orientation of the subjects and layout of the piece harken to his specific style.
The Old Cremona, John F. Peto, 1887-90, Oil on canvas, 39.172.1 (The Met)
In a piece bearing a strikingly similar title to Harnett’s Old Violin, it is unsurprising that the work itself is also essentially an exact copy. Peto was one of Harnett’s first impersonators. The dark green background and the hardware on the door look almost exactly like Harnett’s chosen door for his piece. The composition is the important similarity however. The instrument and bow hang vertically from the same type of rusty nails that Harnett’s do. Peto even goes as far as replicating the wear and tear of both the instrument and the sheet music. His details, while beautiful, are not quite as fine as Harnett’s and he flattens forms while utilizing textures more, therefore his work does not project a simple illusion.
Violin and Bow, Jefferson D. Chalfant, 1889, Oil on canvas, 66.169 (The Met)
Here we see another strikingly similar piece to Harnett’s, however rather than extending his details to the entire work, background and any surrounding objects, Chalfant remains focused on his instrumental subject. Since he focuses so much on the violin itself, it appears more in the foreground than in the other still lifes. This is another work, unlike Peto’s but similar to Music and Good Luck, where it is truly hard to distinguish between reality and illusion. His dimensions are perfectly relative and while his details are subtler, they are no less intense. The only part that breaks the illusion is the lack of wear anywhere on the instrument. It is almost too perfectly crafted to be completely convincing.
Violin and Playing Cards on a Table, Juan Gris, 1913, Oil on canvas, 1996.403.14
In a drastic change from the works before it, this is the first example in this exhibit of the changes that were happening around the art world. Several small movements were starting all around the world, in an effort to try shifting the purpose of and reasoning behind art. Gris crafts his still life using the Cubist style popular at the time. He overlaps several of his planes, and while there is a lot going on in the piece it is still the sections that hold the violin that stand out the most to your eyes. Depth is present, even amid the jumbled planes, and while the violin is on a table, it looks like the perspective is one looking down at the top of the table, orienting the violin to another vertical, centered position, like Harnett’s.
The Violin, Georges Braque, 1914, Oil on canvas, Private Collection
In one of my favorite works that I found in this realm, Georges Braque again utilizes what is identified as synthetic cubism. His planes jumble and overlap like Gris’ did, but his color scheme is subdued in comparison. He has fewer objects being displayed in his work, and it is easier to pick out that the central figure is the violin itself. He creates contrast between the jumbled planes and the solid space outside them with a border in the thin line surrounding the broken planes, almost like a frame or the doors that Harnett’s instruments hung on, and again the vertical orientation makes itself present in the composition. He takes another liberty with his work by including a small plaque with his name on it under the border at the bottom of the work. The only detail not in a shattered plane.