Volume 22, Issue 1 | Spring 2023

William Harnett’s Curious Objects: Still-Life Painting after the American Civil War by Nika Elder

Reviewed by Dina I. Murokh

Nika Elder,
William Harnett’s Curious Objects: Still-Life Painting after the American Civil War.
Oakland: University of California Press, 2022.
216 pp.; 68 color and 20 b&w illus.; bibliography; notes; index.
$60 (hardcover)
ISBN: 978–0–5203–8641–9

In 1886, an agent of the United States Secret Service interrogated the US artist William Harnett (1848–92) on the subject of counterfeit money. The objects that led to this encounter were not currency, not even prints, but rather Harnett’s paintings that hung in an establishment on Warren Street in New York City. This remarkable anecdote raises many questions, not just about the artist’s technical skill and mastery of medium, but also about painting’s participation in the human realms of economics, politics, and social relations. Nika Elder’s William Harnett’s Curious Objects: Still-Life Painting after the American Civil War merges both directions of inquiry by placing Harnett’s intellectual and technical investments in the academic genres of still life and history painting at the center of an exploration of the political implications of his artistic output. Indeed, Elder’s study posits Harnett’s pursuit of still life as a new kind of history painting, relaying one man’s search for an antidote, or perhaps more appropriately shinplaster, for the social and cultural stratification that plagued the post-Civil War US and the attendant constraints on the place of art within it.

Elder’s account works to complicate standard discussions of trompe l’oeil’s illusionism, deception, and commercialism within which Harnett has long been implicated. She looks instead to unearth the artist’s less apparent investment in the challenges of figural representation within the political and social context of the Gilded Age. Four chapters track the development of Harnett’s career, dividing two decades of production by subject matter: mass-produced materials, texts, specimens, and manufactures. Tracing Harnett’s departure from the human body and ultimate arrival at objects of industry, Elder argues that what Harnett does depict, along with what he does not, reveals his preoccupation with a universal language for painting that could withstand the increasing demographic and political sectionalism of the late nineteenth-century US. Elder’s exposition sheds light on many aspects of Harnett’s work and Harnett’s world, but the relation between the two remains ambivalent—the artist’s investment in the realities of the late nineteenth-century US is rendered a perpetual deferral of diversity and difference.

The first chapter focuses on the shortcomings of Harnett’s depictions of explicitly human subjects through his late 1870s paintings of material remnants of the Civil War—cartes-de-visite distributed by the American Missionary Association (AMA) and ten-cent bills, both originally circulated during wartime around 1863. Elder first compares Harnett’s Attention, Company! (1878), citing Aaron Carico, to its source—photographic prints of a young Black boy named Isaac White and a white-presenting girl companion.‍[1] Elder places these objects in conversation with a broader use of war uniforms in period representations of both white and Black men, which were mobilized in the latter case to signal the emancipatory transformation of Black subjecthood in visual culture. Through this contextual discussion, the author highlights the social and financial inequities hidden within Congressional promises to Black men in exchange for their army service. In contrast to the original cartes-de-visite, which stage the promise of equality and multiracialism, Elder helps us see the cropping of Harnett’s painting, the dilapidated background, and the boy’s worn clothing, newspaper hat, and worker’s tool (a broom) as signs of the failure of racial reconciliation and uplift in the postwar period. Yet Elder concedes that the artist may “have been less concerned with Reconstruction than with the ways in which its failure had so dramatically revealed the limits of photography” (39). Artist and author seemingly prioritize the AMA carte-de-visite as object. We are therefore left uncertain whether this painting is merely a signal of the historical possibilities of iconography and medium or a vehicle for contending with the specific human stories (and bodies) deployed for its making.

This chapter also addresses Harnett’s paintings of money in relation to the traumatized postwar body. Harnett’s 1879 paintings Shinplaster with Exhibition Label and Still Life with a Ten-Cent Bill (Shinplaster) both feature an aged ten-cent bill printed only five years earlier in 1874. Elder argues that Harnett was invoking the original 1863 ten-cent bill while employing its more recent version for its portrait subject—not first US president George Washington, who had graced the 1863 bills, but the lesser-known former treasury secretary William M. Meredith. Like the carte of the boy Isaac in Attention, Company!, the 1874 bill with Meredith “could be marshalled to represent something other than its subject” (43). With the work of historian Michael O’Malley in mind, Elder foregrounds rhetorical interpretation of fractional currency as suspicious in value—“shinplaster” as bandages and a reference to white amputees, and “greenback” as a reference to anti-counterfeit color ink on printed money and Black soldiers.‍[2] Through these respective associations with wounds and bodily fragility, Elder situates the artist’s work within period discourses and visual signs of racial identity and physical ability to argue that Harnett’s paintings of ten-cent bills evoke the illegibility of the physically compromised bodies of white amputees and Black soldiers after the Civil War. Elder looks to the mass media archive to position Harnett’s currency paintings as statements of still life’s potential to address historical events without the bodies of their actors. In Elder’s reading, Harnett’s paintings of Civil War relics gesture to, even figure, the body’s newly fraught status in US society.

The rest of the book addresses the artist’s approach to human concerns through more abstract means by way of texts, specimens, and manufactures. Chapter 2 examines small tabletop still lifes featuring handwritten and printed text, which Harnett produced in the late 1870s. Exploring period conceptions of selfhood rather than commodity culture, Elder inserts the artist into the intellectual canon of the late nineteenth-century US. This chapter connects Harnett’s canvases to pragmatism’s concerns and developing notions of consciousness, citing literary realism from Mark Twain to Henry James alongside William James’s early psychological principles. First, Elder proposes Harnett’s displacement of the figural depiction of historical events, as in the academic tradition of history painting, to the visual depiction of printed texts through which stories of these events are circulated. With this shift, Harnett’s works become visual arguments for still life, rather than classic history painting, as the more effective mode of exploring “the human condition” (70). Viewed through William James’s early definitions of the “Self” as multidimensional and an evolving amalgam of material, social, and psychic traits and possessions, Harnett’s tabletop paintings can be understood as engagements with modern personhood. But rather than depicting the conscious body as did many other artists in this period, Harnett’s still lifes “bypass the body and depict cognition itself” (68), representing not the people but the objects that “evoke the operations on which these activities [thinking, reading, writing, or counting] rest” (69). Elder argues that Harnett’s deferral of the body allowed his works to assume a universal human subject that nevertheless reaffirmed a racialized (as well as classed and gendered) view of the world.

Elder also situates Harnett’s 1870s tabletop still lifes in conversation with the academic tradition. Though he avoided explicit symbols of death and spirituality, Elder argues that Harnett drew on the compositional and iconographic trends of earlier European painting in order to present still life as “the unlikely successor to landscape painting” (76), which by the mid-nineteenth century had come to function as a kind of history painting in the US. Inspired by the early modern vanitas tradition, Harnett may have envisioned his own paintings being deployed on gallery walls as more than reconfigurations of domesticated landscapes, the popular form of still life frequently on view in kitchen interiors. Academic landscape painting had assumed the value of history because of its ideological potential, embodying the politics and tensions of the times, but as Elder describes it, when industrialization impeded the efficacy of the landscape as a national image, Harnett hoped his still lifes could, instead, unify the body politic through a generalized consciousness rather than specific people or places. Thus, his paintings of the late 1870s and thereafter posited still life as an exposition of culture rather than nature, fit to represent the “metaphysics” of the human condition after the Civil War.

Chapter 3 contextualizes Harnett’s trompe l’oeil-style paintings of the 1880s in the museum cultures of the late nineteenth century. At the start of the decade, Harnett journeyed to Europe, where he spent time in London, Frankfurt, and Munich, and likely visited many of these cities’ storied museums. While there, he painted canvases that featured deceased animals hanging afront wooden planks. However, Elder notes, none of Harnett’s paintings show overt signs of violence—a visualization of power dynamics linked to European aristocratic hunting traditions. Elder argues that Harnett’s aversion to gore presents a new rendition of the “heroic death” theme of traditional history painting. Though Harnett’s animal paintings have been considered in relation to commercial photographs of similar subject matter, Elder introduces a comparison with the most famous and striking photographs of violent death made in the period—the Civil War battlefield pictures by Mathew Brady, Alexander Gardner, and Timothy O’Sullivan. Closely considering the way these images arrest and arrange the sites and shapes of human mortality, Elder uses Gardner’s photographs after the Battle of Antietam to explore the narrative politics of photographs of deceased Confederate soldiers as representations of failure rather than noble self-sacrifice. Against such images and in the context of the rising popularity of hunting at the turn of the twentieth century, Elder suggests that Harnett’s paintings transfer the human battlefield into the relation between human and animal, wherein the successfully defeated creature becomes a positively valanced symbol of triumphant skill. Rather than the more popular pictorial arrangements of animals as food for the home, Elder argues that Harnett’s animal paintings mobilize the visual language of European paintings—sometimes as direct quotations—to posit a distinct high cultural value, akin to that espoused by history painting, for the same subject matter.

The rest of the chapter explores how Harnett mobilized still life to translate quotidian objects into meaningful museological specimens. Upon his return to the US in the latter half of the 1880s, Harnett redefined the specimen by replacing animal corpses with obsolete man-made objects in his wooden-slat-backed canvases, which Elder further relates to localized period discussions of specimen collecting and display. In particular, Elder turns to paintings like The Golden Horseshoe (1886), The Meerschaum Pipe (1886), and The Faithful Colt (1890), which feature an object together with an accompanying newspaper clipping qua museum label.‍[3] Even though his earlier works relied on the European canon he encountered abroad, Elder posits that Harnett asserted the modernity and “museum-worthiness” of contemporary still life by picturing outdated, man-made objects as vehicles of cultural history. Elder cites the period’s many exhibitions of artifacts as critical context for Harnett’s work and considers two curatorial approaches that help illuminate Harnett’s possible interest in categorizing and displaying culture. First, that of Otis T. Mason, inaugural curator of ethnology at the US National Museum, who argued that similar form reflected similar use. Second, that of his contemporary, soon-to-be anthropologist Franz Boas, who was invested in a broader understanding of form that allowed for cultural differentiation and historical specificity. Citing Bill Brown, Elder invites us to differentiate between object—an emblematic cultural signifier—and thing—an amalgamation of material qualities and parts that contain ephemeral, personal resonances, that “precede, but also exceed, the utilitarian function that the object was originally created to serve” (106). Elder argues that while Harnett mobilized museological strategies and philosophies, he ultimately painted things on display, which referred to a potential specific owner or user and to the mode of their representation. In turn, his own paintings became things on display, objects that upon close inspection reveal the artist’s painstaking and personal labor. This chapter locates Harnett’s ambitions for the museum against the commercial spaces in which his work was often encountered. But perhaps the revelation is that Harnett painted things on display, his works participating in the tandem development of commercial and cultural consumerism, a direction Michael Leja has explored somewhat differently.‍[4] In this light, more might have been made of the false legibility of the depicted objects’ accompanying labels, and how they obscure rather than clarify the consequences of their visual consumption.

The final chapter takes up Harnett’s commissioned work in the years immediately preceding his death in 1892. In these few years, Harnett was, in Elder’s estimation, newly challenged with negotiating his artistic priorities and commitments to still life with the demands of private patronage. Elder focuses on the compositional tactics of his late canvases, arguing that these “eclectic” arrangements of period manufactures most effectively represented Harnett’s artistic process in the face of patrons’ requirements (118). The practices and discourses of late nineteenth-century design—Harnett’s training in the silver industry and the period decorative arts terms “bric-a-brac” and “manufactures”—frame Elder’s argument that the artist’s late works transformed what may have been seen as unthinking imitation of the world into complex artistry. These late paintings largely pictured materials from his personal collection to articulate an individual artistic identity, as many of his contemporaries did with objects in their studios. Thus, if in his silverwork Harnett manipulated standardized designs to transform the mass-produced into the individual possession, then in his late paintings he manipulated a collection of objects to represent both a particular patron and, more importantly for Elder, the specific artist at work behind them. By putting his compositional and technical dexterity on display at large scale, Harnett made an argument for these still lifes as history paintings, requiring the utmost intellectual labor.

The second half of the chapter considers the paintings against the backdrop of the period’s labor politics. Harnett was popular among the managerial class, and as such, Elder argues, his commissioned paintings must be understood as asserting their classed vision of society. Elder reads this in Harnett’s picturing of “manufactures as agents of leisure and culture” rather than sites of “industrial labor and its discontents” (133) at a time when workers were increasingly rising against exploitative and unsafe working conditions. By absenting allusions to labor, Elder argues that Harnett upheld the industrialists who paid him, at the very least by not challenging their worldview. Elder contextualizes this erasure in Harnett’s paintings through popular illustrations and periodicals that depicted the spaces and processes of factory production and several paintings that highlighted laborers, some explored elsewhere in detail by Ross Barrett.‍[5] Harnett’s choice not to participate in depicting the “point of view of labor” (136) therefore illuminates for Elder his interest in projecting still life’s “ostensible investment in neutrality” (138). Harnett’s combination of fine and vernacular objects in these late paintings is another attempt at positioning still life painting as “a unifying force that could compensate for the divisions in American life” (138). Picturing the stuff of modern life through a managerial perspective reproduced the status quo, further reinforcing the white, male perspective articulated in chapter 2. Elder suggests that Harnett looked harder to absolve his object models of worldly associations by treating his use of them as an imaginative, creative design problem. But simply taking commissions from these patrons implicated Harnett, and his works, in staging industry as “a social good,” making it impossible for these objects to serve the message of universality and representation in which Harnett was invested and instead “affirming painting’s long-standing relationship to power” (142).

Revisiting Harnett through Elder’s words presents an opportunity to reflect not only on Harnett’s world, but also on the kinds of questions scholars can, and should, ask of recognized works and artists. Looking closely at Harnett’s compositions as well as the networks of objects and images they reference, the author affirms that Harnett’s decidedly fine art ambitions existed and should be analyzed alongside period photography, philosophy, ethno-museology, and design—in other words, among a wide array of media and intellectual practices, not just makers and styles. At the same time, it is Harnett’s positionality as an academically trained artist that serves as the fundamental inflection point throughout the book, begging the question of whether the relation between the two has always already been resolved—the realm of academic art a counterpoint to a much more socially dynamic and diversified popular cultural landscape.

One leaves this book with the sense that Elder desires to assign Harnett to a “side” of US history while navigating interpretive obstacles posed by the contradictions inherent in the artist’s life and work. The monograph might be an especially difficult form given the dearth of archival records and personal opinion Harnett left behind—something Elder acknowledges at the outset. But it is refreshing to read the author’s serious contention with Harnett’s academic training. The thematic, compositional, and conceptual structures of history painting are a key lens through which the author approaches her examination of the artist’s work throughout. The book seeks to bridge formal investments in close looking, compositional style and strategies, and iconographic traditions, with a broader social history of the period to analyze the consequences of the artist’s choices while deferring, rather than denying, intentionality. Elder argues that, given his academic training, Harnett would have been able to represent bodies in motion on canvas; his choice instead to picture often dated objects in wide circulation suggests a divergence away from picturing the white and male body of classical history painting in favor of object-oriented reflection on the ravages and remains of the deadliest war in the nation’s history. Given the fraught position of the body in the US in the final decades of the nineteenth century, Elder’s Harnett sought the genre of still life painting as an alternative vehicle for history.

But what is the historical potential of art? Throughout the text, Harnett’s artistic attempts at history are haunted by Sir Joshua Reynolds’s famous claim in his Discourses that defined history painting as the depiction of “heroick action, or heroick suffering (23).” Organizing Harnett’s chronological output by type of object depicted, Elder proposes that the artist moved the white, male body of academic history painting ever further out of sight. First, the likeness of a Black boy is relegated to a riff on wartime photographs and the injured body to the realm of rhetorical wordplay. Then, the titles, bindings, and scripts of textual materials that codified and circulated the stuff of history replace bodies in action in the second chapter. The third chapter pushes the body into the museological space of natural or ethnographic history. Finally, in chapter 4, we find the laboring body indexed by objects of managerial possession and leisure. Thus, Elder argues, Harnett’s still lifes highlight objects that relate to and relay the human body—ostensibly the traditional site of universality—in order to replace the one with the other as the locus of the body politic and its values, ideologies, and unified identity. While the thematic dives that structure the book are useful for understanding the context of the late nineteenth-century northeastern US, the core of the argument centers on Harnett’s visual omission of direct engagement with these topics in his efforts to legitimate the genre of still life as a new kind of history painting optimized for a fractured nation. Recognizing that the default figure of history painting was not a tenable representative for universal ideas after the violent, racialized conflict of the Civil War, Elder argues Harnett turned to objects to communicate the value of painting for a postwar society. The book, however, leaves readers with the critical question of whether Harnett’s limited vision of history painting, and history, need be ours.

Elder situates Harnett’s paintings as meditations on a new type of object-oriented engagement specific to the late nineteenth-century US, bridging the assumed primacy of material culture in eighteenth-century colonial contexts and twentieth-century modernism. Highlighting the artist’s turn to objects in place of the human body, Elder’s discussion of Harnett’s still lifes ultimately leads to positioning him as a precursor to twentieth-century object portraits, an argument for a kind of “proto-modernism” once elaborated by Johanna Drucker and espoused much earlier, in 1939, by collector and gallerist Edith Halpert who described Harnett’s output as “a link between Dutch art of the seventeenth century and sur-realism of the twentieth.”‍[6] The question remains whether Harnett must be rescued as a progressive seer of twentieth- and twenty-first-century aesthetic movements or representational politics to provide a useful site for art history.

Indeed, the text’s focus on Harnett’s seemingly outsized cultural ambitions for his art provides a potential starting point for reassessing the artist’s more immediate peers—most obviously, John Frederick Peto and John Haberle, but also many others who worked on still life or attempted trompe l’oeil. Does their work support the same function of history toward which Harnett aimed? Were other artists in Harnett’s milieu similarly invested in replacing the subjects of history painting with objects of daily life beyond the commercial and social interests of the art market? Through Elder’s lens on Harnett, how might we assess differently whether Gilded Age still life painting reflected the boundaries and politics of individual and communal identity? How did such paintings assuage or circumvent anxieties around subject position, particularly related to the construction of white, male identity in the late nineteenth-century US?

Elder’s rereading of Harnett’s artistic output with this in mind asks the reader to see bodies, or people, where often none are visible. In moving away from presence and towards absence, Elder’s approach is aligned with efforts in the field of US art history and beyond to reconsider how the not-seen or not-known might still be an active presence in objects as well as archives. In his 2005 book, Sight Unseen, Martin Berger sought to examine how racial ideologies of whiteness structured the making and reception of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century US visual arts through forces that remain out of view, arguing that “a decidedly racialized perspective animated even those cultural products most removed from racial concerns.”‍[7] More recently, we might consider work such as Jennifer Van Horn and Phillip Troutman’s 2022 exposé on the late eighteenth-century silhouette portrait of Flora.‍[8] The authors shift existing narratives surrounding the human subject and the material object by way of new research as well as informed conjecture, following Saidiya Hartman’s call for the thoughtful and critical reimagination of subaltern lives.‍[9] Elder’s consideration of the subjects Harnett depicted always together with those that he did not, in tandem with questions of race, is in dialogue with urgent proposals like that recently made by Kirsten Pai Buick to “learn to see those absences [that have shaped the canon of ‘American’ art history],” “make present those who are absent,” and “demonstrate the racializing work performed by the absences themselves.”‍[10] In challenging scholars of American art to do more to take up white racial formation, Buick reminds us—as do the recent commentaries published in the fall 2022 issue of American Art—that facing the absences as well as the presences embedded within the canon can reveal new ideas, narratives, questions, and voices.

Elder’s text offers a model for how one might interrogate a visual output that, on the surface, has seemingly little to say about the period’s lived experiences of politics around race, ability, and class. While chapter 1 concretely addresses select Civil War- and Reconstruction-era visual cultures around race and physical disability, and chapter 4 invokes late nineteenth-century debates about labor and the working class, the book at large filters these concerns through Harnett’s desire to rid still life painting of the non-universal. The epilogue emphasizes the author’s interest in the potential ideological and transhistorical implications of Harnett’s compositional choices, but the book does not quite achieve answers to the political questions about the representation of non-white, non-male, and non-elite subjects latent throughout it. Elder’s book does demonstrate, however, how closely and insistently we must sometimes look to see the ways in which Gilded Age paintings reify racialized and classed conceptions of culture, identity, and citizenship.

Nika Elder’s William Harnett’s Curious Objects is an exploration of a single artist’s developing aesthetic and intellectual interests through his pursuit of still life painting in the context of the political and pictorial cultures of his time. What lies between the lines is the author’s grappling with a crucial methodological challenge in the field of art history of the United States and beyond: how to locate and explain the ways in which privilege and whiteness might be coded and asserted in art even when not pictured or explicitly affirmed in the archive. Elder’s work with William Harnett’s curious objects convinces us that there is always more to see and that the complexities and peculiarities of art’s histories are precisely the pressure points on which historians ought to focus, as she does, through closer and more curious looking.


[1] Aaron Carico, “The Spectacle of Free Black Personhood,” in Black Market: The Slave’s Value in National Culture after 1865 (Durham, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 51–104.

[2] Michael O’Malley, “Rags, Blacking, and Paper Soldiers,” in Face Value: The Entwined Histories of Money and Race in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).

[3] This citation refers to William Harnett’s The Meerschaum Pipe (1886) held at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. A second painting titled The Meerschaum Pipe from 1886 is held at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio.

[4] Michael Leja, “Touching Pictures by William Harnett,” in Looking Askance: Skepticism and American Art from Eakins to Duchamp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 125–62.

[5] Ross Barrett, “Painting and Political Violence at Century’s End,” in Rendering Violence: Riots, Strikes, and Upheaval in Nineteenth-Century American Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 127–54.

[6] Johanna Drucker, “Harnett, Haberle, and Peto: Visuality and Artifice among the Proto-Modern Americans,” Art Bulletin 74, no. 1 (March 1992): 37–50; Edith Gregor Halpert, Introduction to Nature-Vivre by William M. Harnett, exh. cat. (New York: The Downtown Gallery, 1939), https://archive.org/.

[7] Martin A. Berger, Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2005), 2.

[8] Phillip Troutman and Jennifer Van Horn, “Seeing Flora’s Profile as Portrait,” Panorama: Journal of the Association of Historians of American Art 8, no. 1 (Spring 2022), https://doi.org/10.24926/24716839.13111.

[9] Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2019).

[10] Kirsten Pai Buick, “Seeing the Survey Anew: Introduction,” American Art 36, no. 3 (Fall 2022): 2.