The Old Violin, William Michael Harnett


One way I've been finding new art has been looking at the National Gallery of Art's Collection Highlights page.

That led me to The Old Violin, a work by William Michael Harnett - an artist I'd never heard of before.

Thanks to the National Gallery's Open Access image policy, I was able to download a high-resolution version of the image so I could get a better look at it.

I was a little surprised to see so much more than I had in the thumbnail, to have such different reactions as I noticed each new thing:

  • the aging brackets on the door, one missing a rivet, the other missing part of the metal
  • the pockmarks on the wood
  • the little clipping from a newspaper or book - I can't tell what it says, if anything. It looks like made-up text there aren't many words short enough to be "the" or similar structural words. If it's just made up, I wonder what Harnett was imagining as he was painting those careful tiny characters
  • the carefully, beautifully rendered envelope
  • the basic shapes themselves - the rectangle outlined by the brackets, the circle of the door pull, the large rivets; the oblique overlap of the envelope over the bracket end

And then getting to read the overview gave me more to look for and think about - and the link to the free PDF of American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I provided a wonderful trove of additional history and detail - including this description of the techniques involved in the cancelled stamp on the letter:

One of his most dumbfounding achievements, the canceled stamp, was actually a process of several steps. The artist began by building up a square of light-toned paint, each individual serrated tooth of its border receiving minuscule strokes of highlight and shadow. Next came a thin layer of brown into which a blunt stylus was scraped to shape the stamp's emblem of crossed flags. He then took up a finer, pointed instrument to execute the nearly microscopic engraving lines running throughout the image. Changing to a darker black paint, he added the cancellation mark, finally ending by smudging the entire configuration with his still-visible fingerprint.

Such concentrated labor seems to infuse The Old Violin with a store of potential energy.

I really enjoyed getting to become acquainted with this work, and with its creator.

The Old Violin, a painting by William Michael Harnett, showing a violin hanging on a wooden door