A retiring Victorian bachelor named William Harnett was probably the best of all U.S. still-life painters. His After the Hunt is the public favorite at San Francisco's California Palace of the Legion of Honor. Harnett painted it for the Paris Salon of 1885, "to discover whether or not the line of work I had been pursuing had or had not artistic merit." Paris liked the picture.

Harnett's mellow, meticulous style was not easily achieved. A poor boy, he began by selling papers, later made a living engraving silverware. He studied painting at night. Since he could not afford live models, he painted...

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