Property from a Distinguished Estate
WILLIAM MICHAEL HARNETT
1848 - 1892
FRUIT AND ASPARAGUS
signed WMHARNETT and dated 1875 (lower left)
oil on canvas
canvas: 18 by 24 inches (45.7 by 61 cm)
framed: 29 by 35 inches (73.6 by 88.9 cm)
The present work is accompanied by a letter from Dr. William H. Gerdts, former Professor of Art History at the City University Graduate School, New York.
The following condition report has been provided by Simon Parkes, Simon Parkes Art Conservation, Inc., New York, an independent restorer who is not an employee of Sotheby's.
This painting is in good condition. The canvas is well stretched on its original stretcher. It is unlined, but the reverse has been treated with a sizing agent and the tacking edges have been reinforced. The paint layer is stable. Under ultraviolet light, it can be seen that the paint layer had been selectively cleaned, leaving uneven remnants of an old varnish in the majority of the darker areas of the composition. There are a series of retouches addressing small cracks in the banana furthest to the left. There are a few small retouches in the table top and in the left side of the table base. The work should be hung as is.
For more information on this lot, please email Elizabeth Goodridge at Elizabeth.Goodridge@sothebys.com.
The lot is sold in the condition it is in at the time of sale. The condition report is provided to assist you with assessing the condition of the lot and is for guidance only. Any reference to condition in the condition report for the lot does not amount to a full description of condition. The images of the lot form part of the condition report for the lot. Certain images of the lot provided online may not accurately reflect the actual condition of the lot. In particular, the online images may represent colors and shades which are different to the lot's actual color and shades. The condition report for the lot may make reference to particular imperfections of the lot but you should note that the lot may have other faults not expressly referred to in the condition report for the lot or shown in the online images of the lot. The condition report may not refer to all faults, restoration, alteration or adaptation. The condition report is a statement of opinion only. For that reason, the condition report is not an alternative to taking your own professional advice regarding the condition of the lot. NOTWITHSTANDING THIS ONLINE CONDITION REPORT OR ANY DISCUSSIONS CONCERNING A LOT, ALL LOTS ARE OFFERED AND SOLD "AS IS" IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE CONDITIONS OF SALE/BUSINESS APPLICABLE TO THE RESPECTIVE SALE.
Jess Pavey, Birmingham, Michigan, by 1969
Coe Kerr Gallery, New York
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1979
Alfred Frankenstein, After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters 1870-1900, Los Angeles, California, 1975, no. 12A, p. 165
New York, National Academy of Design, 1875
Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art; New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; Berkeley, California, University Art Museum; San Francisco, California, Palace of the Legion of Honor; Detroit, Michigan, Detroit Institute of Arts, The Reality of Appearance: The Trompe L'Oeil Tradition in American Painting, March - October 1970, no. 20, pp. 15, 58-59, illustrated
In a letter accompanying this lot, Dr. William H. Gerdts wrote:
Fruit and Asparagus is one of the small group of still lifes by William Michael Harnett with which the artist emerged into public view in the mid 1870s, before he turned to the still life subject matter for which he is best known today. These were painted between 1874-76, after which he turned almost exclusively to pictures stressing primarily man-made, rather than nature-grown objects. Of this group, there are known only four works of substantial size, of which this is one.
The subject matter of the present picture, primarily fruit and vegetables, allies Harnett to the tradition of American still life painting back through the two previous generations, the mid-century work of artists such as John F. Francis and George Hall and the first generation of American still life specialists such as Raphaelle and James Peale. Yet, the actual subject matter in this painting is quite special. Actually, none of the specific objects in the picture are common. Even the oranges are relative rarities in the tradition, though they would soon become a specialty of William John McCloskey in the next decade. But at the time, they were exotic, tropical fruit, as were certain bananas and plantains, while asparagus stand out because they are rarities in the history of art. (It is doubtful that Harnett would have known the example of that subject painted in the previous decade by the little studied Paul Lacroix).
Despite the superficial similarity in the painting of edible subject matter to the artists of the previous generation, Harnett has brought a new sensibility both to the choice of subject and to the matter of painting. Unlike the work of Francis, this is emphatically not a “luncheon” or “dessert” picture. That is, the combination of edibles do not suggest a meal or a part of one. They combine for aesthetic diversification, not because they bear association in practical terms. Harnett appears to have chosen these objects because of their relative exoticism, but also because they offered him the opportunity to display his amazing virtuosity in the creation of tactile and textural illusionism. The hairy coconut, the plump bananas, the first asparagus and the rounded, nubby form of the oranges are carefully distinguished, and Harnett creates a counterpoint with all those combined forms and textures with the thin flatness of the newspaper and the shining, reflective surface of the sleekly smooth ceramic.
These qualities not only contrast with the work of Francis and others, but also already look forward to Harnett’s later work. Deceptive illusionism is the key to Harnett’s painting as it was not to the previous generations. And to heighten that, Harnett has introduced the newspaper which stretches beyond the edge of the marble top table, that is, beyond the picture plane and seemingly out into the space of the viewer. His mastery of the nature of newspaper and the illusion of printing on it (which, however, is not readable) are qualities he will repeat over and over ahead in the future and which will be taken up by his myriad of followers but it is found here for the first time. Even Harnett’s use of the marble top table or counter is different from that of his predecessor, Severin Roesen. Roesen introduced this support and luxury to his abundant fruit and flower compositions. Harnett’s display is, in contrast, quite austere. He has chosen marble (rather than wood or a cloth covering) in order to contrast a specific, hard texture with the ones on top of it. A mid-century artist would soften the contrast between the fragile fruit and vegetables; Harnett emphasizes it. Likewise, his color and tonal contrasts are dramatic, creating strong patterns of light and dark, rather than the smoother, softer transitions of the mid-century.
Another quality already found here which will remain constant throughout Harnett’s relatively short career is his concern for structured composition combined with a seeming – and “illusion” – of casualness. The objects may seem to be displayed in a random fashion, but they have actually been arranged extremely carefully. The newspaper, for instance, appears on a diagonal parallel with the right side of the table, but also at a strong but not obvious right angle to the plantain at the left. The upward diagonal of that same fruit, appearing natural as it rests on the yellow banana below, parallels that of the oranges right of center, which actually create a three-dimensional diamond with the form of the newspaper. The same diagonal back into the space is duplicated by the two emphatically upright forms, the asparagus and the ceramic, which balance the strong horizontals of the table top itself and the row of oranges and the coconut. Those two largest forms, the bunched asparagus and the ceramic are both tied up, but then those bindings are themselves contrasted, those around the asparagus being ribbons circling horizontally, while the rope around the ceramic creates a diagonal, looping pattern. These forms are actual, of course, but they are chosen with great purpose arranged with great care and painted with great illusionism.