A Reliable Bag of Tricks

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THE BOTTOM LINE: An overblown look at work that exemplifies the delights -- and limits -- of skillful realism.

FOR SOME DECADES NOW, THE eye-fooler William Harnett (1848-92) has been one of the most popular American 19th century painters. Everyone relishes the stories about his gee-whiz illusionistic skills and how they mesmerized Americans at the dawn of the photographic age a century ago, people less drenched in images and less blase about them than we. "So real is it," wrote a Cincinnati journalist in 1886 about a Harnett called The Old Violin, that a special guard "has been detailed to stand beside the picture and suppress any attempts to take down the fiddle and the bow." To some, Harnett suggested a classical parallel. He was the American Zeuxis, the Greek painter (none of whose works survive) who was said to be so good at trompe l'oeil that birds flew down to peck the grapes in one of his still lifes, thus proving that he could bamboozle not only men but Nature herself. People loved Harnett's work because they felt he was a con man. To be fooled and know you are being fooled (along with others) is a truly democratic joy.

But not even the resources of the Metropolitan Museum of Art can turn Harnett into one of the best American artists of his time. This is not for lack of trying. The Met's Harnett show, which will travel to Fort Worth and San Francisco before finishing at the National Gallery in Washington in the spring of 1993, marks the 100th anniversary of his death and contains most of his known work.

Harnett's life is slim pickings for the biographer. The son of an immigrant Irish shoemaker from Cork, he lived in Philadelphia, worked in New York City as a journeyman artist and engraver, studied briefly in Munich, showed his pictures in beer halls as well as in art galleries, and died of kidney failure at the age of 44 without leaving a single recorded comment on his art or, indeed, on anything else, beyond declaring that "I endeavour to make the composition tell a story." But one may be fairly sure that if his ghost saw the Met's catalog, it would utter an Irish oath of bewilderment. It features essays by 22 scholars, all solemnly excogitating on such weighty matters as whether the horseshoes in his pictures are from dray horses or Thoroughbreds. If one wanted an example of how art history gets trivialized by sheer overpopulation of the field and turned into a checkerboard of prolix specializations, this is it.

On the wall, and somewhere under this tumulus of pedantry, is a minor artist with some distinctly good moments and a reliable bag of tricks, whose work can be enjoyed on its own terms without loading it with significance. All his paintings in the show -- with one exception, an inertly sentimental picture of a small black boy in a paper hat -- are still lifes. He was not interested in figures and had no feel for the human face. The best of Harnett is, so to speak, the weak populist end of the best strain in 19th century American art: its adherence to pragmatic, empirical vision, to art as an instrument of the world's measurement. (The great figures in this are Audubon, Eakins and Homer.)

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