After the Hunt, 1884
Oil on canvas, 55 X 4011 (139.70 x 10 1.60 cm.)
Signed, lower left
Museum purchase, 954-0-120
It is to a quartet of trompe l'oeil game pictures that William Michael Harnett owes much of his recognition as the leading painter of illusionistic still lifes in late nineteenth-century American art. The pictures, each entitled After the Hunt, represent the artistic culmination of Harnetts European experience and its passage to America. The last version, making an unusual journey from the Paris Salon to a New York saloon, met with instant success and became the prototype for still lifes by other artists who worked in the trompe l'oeil style such as George Cope, Victor Dubreuil, and Charles Meurer. These monumental still lifes of antique hunting gear and small game hung on old wooden doors are the artist's most intense explorations of a single theme. The Butler Institute's version is his third-the last and most complex of three painted in Munich. While it exhibits the somber, contemplative aura of the first two versions, its composition is more closely paired with the final 1885 work because of its larger scale, dominant X-form, and depiction of massive elaborate hinges.
After the Hunt is invested with an air of connoisseurship joining the affluent tastes of two continents. The picture is steeped in the still-life traditions of Dutch and Flemish Baroque game pieces and their nineteenth-century European and American interpretations. It is informed by still-life vignettes, found in nineteenth-century genre paintings and prints, of hunting gear hanging on walls. Counterparts for these models are found in photography, such as the large-scale photographs of gear and catch pioneered by the Alsatian Adolphe Braun. Braun's compositions were probable sources for Harnett, among many still-life arrangements with game which were popular photographic subjects in Europe and America. Moreover, the hunting equipment that Harnett depicts is of European origin, reflecting the vogue for collecting antique bric-a-brac. The whole is seasoned with the ritual of Victorian-era dining which, befitting international cosmopolitan style, was heralded in sideboards lavishly carved with trophies of the hunt. The Butler Institute picture is among Harnett's greatest testaments to the art of trompe l'oeil. The illusionistic objects project in strong relief, their three- dimensionality underscored by the brooding darkness of the "door" on which they hang. Light and shadow, line and curve, lift and gravitational pull are carefully orchestrated to afford each object its full descriptive measure. Equally celebrated are the texture of fur, the patina of wood, the sheen of bone, and the polish of brass. Such convincing tactility further sustains the remarkable deception. Harnett's skill at effecting deceit gained the attention of admiring crowds. Probably referring to the Butler Institute picture, a Munich newspaper critic observed: "One would think it possible to remove the hat, the hunting horn, the flintlock, the sword, the powder horn and the game bag from their nails and with them equip one's self for the hunt .... one does not know which to admire more-the artist's gigantic patience or his astonishing powers of observation and imitation."
Despite their immense popular appeal, Harnett's still lifes received little critical acclaim. Indeed, the Munich critic referred to the Butler Institute picture's "pedantry," and expressed his distrust in its artistic integrity. Today we recognize the inventiveness and conceptual complexity of Harnett's style. Transcending illusionism for its own sake, Harnett chose objects for their expressive potential and storytelling qualities. We are drawn to the impenetrable volume of the Tyrolean hat placed above the revealing circumference of the hunting horn; we are charmed by the carved lion of the sword hilt which snarls at the axe-wielding warrior of the key plate.
After the Hunt does not record the rigid, pungent death of a particular shoot. No excitement of the chase or anticipation of a feast is suggested. The thick, soft, unbloodied fur of the hare is meant to be admired as much as the carved stag decoration of the wheel-lock rifle. The picture instead ennobles the hunt and its artifacts. It venerates a world of gentlemanly leisure and retreat, of wealth and elegance, of memorable bygone days. The dented brass surface of the hunting horn portrays affectionate use and wear, the fine craftsmanship of the eighteenth- century rifle commemorates mellowing age and distinction, and the rusty hinges and weathered door evoke the passage of time. Mirroring a darker, introspective side of the Gilded Age, which sought comfort in a simpler past, this picture resounds with nostalgic reverie.
ELIZABETH JANE CONNELL