Alas, Poor Yorick

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Alas, Poor Yorick

United States, 1877
Paintings
Oil on canvas
7 1/4 x 9 1/4 in. (18.42 x 23.5 cm)
Gift of Charles C. and Elma Ralphs Shoemaker (AC1994.152.5)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

Harnett was a major late-nineteenth-century artist in the United States, and the most important trompe l’oeil still life painter of the era....
Harnett was a major late-nineteenth-century artist in the United States, and the most important trompe l’oeil still life painter of the era. During the 1870s he worked in Philadelphia and New York City, and by the late 1870s he had established his early reputation with the tightly painted and meticulously realistic table top still lifes. These have been dubbed “bachelor still lifes” because Harnett included objects primarily considered masculine: pipes, bags of tobacco, rugged pottery mugs, and newspapers or other printed material. These bachelor still lifes were all exceptionally small in scale, and painted in a dark, realistic palette. Harnett painted numerous examples, varying them primarily in the arrangement of the objects included. Alas, Poor Yorick (also known as Kilo, Tobacco and Pipe and Materials for a Leisure Hour) is a splendid classic example of Harnett’s early bachelor still lifes, and demonstrates that the artist was already fascinated by the sense of intense realism that would dominate his mature, larger, trompe l’oeil rack paintings.
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About The Era

After the Jacksonian presidency (1829–37), the adolescent country began an aggressive foreign policy of territorial expansion, exemplified by the success of the Mexican-American War (1846–48)....
After the Jacksonian presidency (1829–37), the adolescent country began an aggressive foreign policy of territorial expansion, exemplified by the success of the Mexican-American War (1846–48). Economic growth, spurred by new technologies such as the railroad and telegraph, assisted the early stages of empire building. As a comfortable and expanding middle class began to demonstrate its wealth and power, a fervent nationalist spirit was celebrated in the writings of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville. Artists such as Emanuel Leutze produced history paintings re-creating the glorious past of the relatively new country. Such idealizations ignored the mounting political and social differences that threatened to split the country apart. The Civil War slowed development, affecting every fiber of society, but surprisingly was not the theme of many paintings. The war’s devastation did not destroy the American belief in progress, and there was an undercurrent of excitement due to economic expansion and increased settlement of the West.
During the postwar period Americans also began enthusiastically turning their attention abroad. They flocked to Europe to visit London, Paris, Rome, Florence, and Berlin, the major cities on the Grand Tour. Art schools in the United States offered limited classes, so the royal academies in Germany, France, and England attracted thousands of young Americans. By the 1870s American painting no longer evinced a singleness of purpose. Although Winslow Homer became the quintessential Yankee painter, with his representations of country life during the reconstruction era, European aesthetics began to infiltrate taste.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Barrett, Ross. "Harnett's Habit: Still Life Painting and Smoking Culture in the Gilded Age." American Art 33, no.2 (2019): 62-83.