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John Haberle: American Master of Illusion

September 18 - December 12, 2010


John Haberle (1856-1933) is considered one of the most accomplished American trompe l'oeil painters. John Haberle: American Master of Illusion, on view September 18 through December 12, 2010, at the Portland Museum of Art, features 20 paintings from museums and private collections around the country. Organized by the New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut and featuring major paintings from the Portland Museum of Art, American Master of Illusion is a compelling look at this fascinating chapter in the history of American art. (right: John Haberle (United States, 1856-1933), Reproduction, circa 1886, oil on canvas, 10 x 14 inches. Gift of Walter B. Goldfarb, M.D.)

John Haberle combined masterful technique with sly, witty historical and personal references to American life in his paintings. Alluding to the moral and political issues of the time, Haberle's trompe l'oeil (meaning to "fool the eye") paintings juxtapose newspaper clippings, tickets, and money with objects such as a pocket watch, playing cards, and rosary beads. The slight but ingenious details make each of Haberle's paintings entertaining and complex. Haberle's precise work was under-recognized during his lifetime. Afterward, he faded into complete obscurity but was rediscovered in 1949 by American scholar Alfred Frankenstein. Despite the fleeting fame during his lifetime, today Haberle is considered one of the most accomplished American trompe l'oeil painters alongside William Michael Harnett and John Frederick Peto.

In the New Britain Museum's Time and Eternity, Haberle juxtaposes objects of the temporal world, such as a pocket watch, playing cards, and rosary beads with a newspaper clipping that references Robert G. Ingersoll, a lecturer at the time who was tried for blasphemy because of his unorthodox views on slavery and the Bible. The painting, though seemingly straight-forward, subtly illustrates the passing of time and the gambles that we take with our lives, while simultaneously making reference to the political issues of the time.

Presentation of the exhibition in Maine is a fitting celebration of the recent gift of Haberle's masterpiece Reproduction of 1888 to the Portland Museum of Art. Donated by Dr. Walter B. Goldfarb, the former head of surgery at the Maine Medical Center, Reproduction is an important addition to the Museum's American collections and is the third major trompe l'oeil painting given to the Museum by Dr. Goldfarb.

Supplementing the exhibition is a catalogue created by art historian and curator Gertrude Grace Sill entitled John Haberle: American Master of Illusion. Both the exhibition and catalogue is the first complete study devoted to Haberle. The catalogue is based primarily on new research gathered by Sill through forgotten Haberle archives and interviews with Haberle descendents. The catalogue is available in the Museum Store.

To view wall text from the exhibition please click here.

To view the checklist from the exhibition please click here.


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