The trompe l'oeil theme, generally a casual arrangement of printed paper, letters, playing cards, drawings and watercolors (frequently against a specific background, with the whole occupying a very shallow pictorial space), enjoyed an enduring popularity in Europe as a sub-genre of still-life. There are examples from many countries in many media, watercolor being the most usual, though an important and early exception is Wallerant Vaillant's 1658 oil on canvas Letter Rack (now in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden). In the United States, an early example in the genre was the architect Benjamin Latrobe's watercolor Breakfast Equipage of the "Eliza" (Maryland Historical Society), dated 1795, within a few years of the probable date of execution of the present work. The "letter-rack", developed in oils by William M. Harnett and John F. Peto, became the dominant theme of this genre in America.
The engraver could be any of several members of the Tardieu family, which spread over three generations of French 18th-century printmaking and were active in all areas of the industry. The most likely choices are: Jean Baptiste Tardieu (1768-1837), Jean Baptiste Pierre Tardieu (1746-1816) or Pierre Alexandre Tardieu (1756-1844).
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