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William Harnett

American, born Ireland, 1848(?)–1892

Music and Literature, 1878

Oil on canvas
24 x 32 1/8 inches (61 x 81.6 cm)
Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1941

Still life painting became very popular in the United States after the Civil War, and although it was never really recognized by critics as a high form of art or practiced by the leading artists of the time, many people purchased still lifes for their homes.

In Music and Literature, everything is painted extremely realistically, down to the smallest detail. Harnett was an expert at rendering textures—for example, the tattered and fragile music stained with age; the shine of an ebony-and-ivory flute; books with worn leather covers; the reflection of light on a brass candlestick; the translucency of a candle; and the shiny and matte sides of a red ribbon bookmark.

There is more to this painting, though, than simple artistic dexterity. Music and literature help to preserve the past, and Harnett specifically included Miguel Cervantes’s early-seventeenth-century novel Don Quixote and music (in the foreground) from the more recent opera La Traviata, written by Guiseppe Verdi in 1853. The music, however, is stained and torn, and the leather covers of the books worn with age. The flute is cracked and the candle almost completely burned down. All of these details add a note of melancholy to the painting, as it reminds viewers of the inevitable passage of time.

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