Published: June 6, 2006
The Currier Museum of Art announces the acquisition of a major still-life painting, “A Royal Dessert,” 1881, by William Michael Harnett (1848-1892), one of America’s most important late Nineteenth Century painters.
Until recently, the whereabouts of this painting was unknown to curators, art historians and dealers. For more than 60 years it had belonged to Virginia Crocker Baker in Peterborough, N.H., whose husband’s grandmother had given it to her as a wedding present. After the painting survived a serious fire unscathed in 2001, Baker decided it deserved a safer home and a wider audience; she donated “A Royal Dessert” to both the Currier Museum and the Harris Center in Hancock, N.H. The Currier purchased the Harris Center’s interest using the Henry Melville Fuller Acquisition Fund.
The last time “A Royal Dessert” was exhibited publicly was in 1883 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in an exhibition of contemporary American art. “It is a great thrill for a museum to ‘discover’ a new painting, especially one of this high caliber,” said Susan Strickler, director of the Currier. “With discoveries like this there is the opportunity to learn more about the artist and to understand his contribution to the field of American art.”
Harnett was the subject of a major exhibition in 1992 that traveled to The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Born in Ireland, he was raised in Philadelphia, where he became an engraver and began his art studies at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In the 1870s, Harnett continued his work and training in New York City, where he first began to exhibit paintings. By 1880 his success permitted him to travel to Europe to study the Old Masters, and “A Royal Dessert” was painted during the two years he spent in Munich. In 1886 he returned to New York City and enjoyed an active career painting and exhibiting until he died at the young age of 44.
“A Royal Dessert” is a feast for the eyes, containing a number of objects that can be found in other paintings by Harnett, including the Colorado Madeira cigar box, the cloth draped on the table, the cigar holder and the section of newspaper – the Supplement to the Philadelphia Ledger – that hangs over the edge of the table and extends into the viewer’s space. Harnett was a master of the category of still life painting known as trompe l’oeil. Close inspection reveals blemishes on the apples, the delicate etching on the glass decanter with a reflection of light from the window on the side of the decanter and shining through the wine, creating a rose hued pool of light on the tabletop.
“A Royal Dessert” is currently on display in the museum’s American galleries on the second floor until the museum closes for expansion on June 27. Admission to the Currier Museum will be free to all from June 19 through June 26.
The Currier Museum of Art is at 201 Myrtle Way. For information, www.currier.org or 603-669-6144, extension 108.
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