William Harnett was a 19th-century Irish-American painter. He is one of the best-known still life painters of his era and greatly influenced the technique of trompe l’oeil, a style of painting optical illusions that play tricks on the eye.
Harnett was born on Aug.10, 1848, in Clonakilty, Ireland. When he was a baby, he and his family moved to the U.S. city of Philadelphia. Harnett came from a family of artisans, and as a young man, he trained to become a silver engraver, carving designs on silverware before it was sold. He worked in this field from the time he was a teenager until his mid-20s. At the same time, he also took night classes at the Philadelphia Academy of the Fine Arts before moving to New York City to take classes at the National Academy of Design in 1871.
In the 1870s, Harnett began painting oil paintings. His first known oil painting dates to 1874. In 1876, he moved back to Philadelphia and began experimenting with trompe l’oeil. During the early 1880s, Harnett traveled in Europe, but his paintings were not well received by most art critics and collectors. In fact, during his lifetime, Harnett’s paintings sold well and were found in restaurants and businesses, but they were rarely displayed in museums or art galleries because they were not seen as “high art.”
Harnett returned to the United States after 1886, where he lived and worked in New York City until his death in 1892. His work can now be found in museums across the country.
Trompe l’oeil is a style of painting ordinary objects in ways that fool the eye. Harnett’s paintings were very realistic and detailed and looked like early versions of 3D! Things like books, papers and odd dead animals appear to pop out from the painting. In trompe l’oeil style, you are made to believe that the objects are real and not just painted on paper.
Have you ever made 3D art before? Try making a trompe l’oeil drawing and fool people into thinking the objects in your picture are real!
What You Need: drawing paper, pencil, eraser, pencil sharpener, 3 to 5 everyday objects (toothbrush, books, eyeglasses, watch, silverware, anything really) and a desk lamp.
Arrange your objects in a still-life arrangement on a table. Shine the lamp on your still life so that the objects are shadowed. Pay attention to where the shadows are dark and light; you’ll be drawing these!
Begin sketching your still life drawing with a pencil. Hold your pencil at an angle so you can lightly rub it back and forth on the paper to shade your drawing darker where the shadows in the still life are darkest black and lighter grey where the shadows are lighter. This should make the objects pop out as though they are 3D.
When you are finished with your drawing, hang it on a wall and ask your friends or classmates to take a peek. Does your trompe l’oeil picture fool them?
Written by Tamar Burris, a former elementary school teacher who now works as a freelance writer and curriculum developer for PBS, the Discovery Channel and other education-related companies.