John Haberle: American Master of Illusion

September 18 - December 12, 2010

 



 

Wall text from the exhibition

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

THAT'S ME! (SELF-PORTRAIT), 1882

oil on panel

Private collection

Haberle decided to pursue a career as an artist shortly after completing That's Me! and applied to The National Academy of Design in New York. As America's most prestigious and competitive art school at the time, The National Academy was a center of conservative training based on the curriculum of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

This self-portrait demonstrates the early emergence of Haberle's trompe l'oeil style. For example, the corner of the picture is curling and the point of the tack showing, both elements of detail that develop in his later works. The painting is not a traditional self-portrait, but rather, a painting of a portrait itself; an illusion of a picture within a picture.

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

IMITATION, 1887

oil on canvas

National Gallery of Art, Washington. New Century Fund, Gift of the Amon G. Carter Foundation, 1998.96.1

Following the critical success of an earlier currency painting, Five Dollar Bill, Haberle was encouraged to paint an even more technically complex piece. He was fearful, however, that he would be accused of counterfeiting like his contemporary William Harnett. Regardless, he tentatively submitted Imitation to The National Academy's fall exhibition in 1887.

Composed predominantly of ephemera such as stamps and treasury notes, each object is painted in the finest detail with brushstrokes so small they are nearly invisible. Every word that is "printed" on the banknote was painstakingly rendered and upon closer inspection remains convincing. The creases and folds of the currency are so life-like that if it were not for the satirical title one might think Haberle had indeed forged currency.

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

REPRODUCTION, 1886-1887

oil on canvas

Portland Museum of Art, Maine. Gift of Walter B. Goldfarb, M.D., 2009.34

Ever playful, Reproduction includes a tongue-in-cheek reference to his critics within the composition. The newspaper clippings in Reproduction refer to the controversy surrounding Haberle's work and allude to the charges of counterfeiting that he and his contemporaries faced from both the public and government.

Haberle signed his name within the painting itself -- the two clippings and the tintype self-portrait serve to identify the artist. The background is abraded and the currency appears to be disintegrating, but upon closer inspection such flaws are revealed to be painted in such a way to further the ruse. In the smaller clipping wedged beneath the tintype, the last line reads "Athat would humbug Barnum"-a reference to the circus impresario P. T. Barnum's ability to deceive. One can only assume the obscured word is 'deception.'

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

U.S.A (THE CHICAGO BILL PICTURE), circa 1889

oil on canvas

Indianapolis Museum of Art. Gift of Paul and Ruth Buchanan, 2002.225

U.S.A. attracted widespread attention in 1889 when a Chicago newspaper published an article denigrating Haberle. The newspaper's critic asserted that the currency depicted was in fact real and that the bills were merely covered with paint to appear 'painterly.' He even claimed he had picked loose the edge of one. The painting was closely scrutinized by experts, and was eventually submitted to a physical test of authenticity. The paper later retracted the article, calling the piece "a true work of imitative art."

U.S.A. contains two ragged bills, a brief clipping praising Imitation and a worn Benjamin Franklin one-cent stamp. A ten-dollar bill seems to have been pasted to the wood surface and then ripped away. In one of his most convincing deceptions, Haberle composed the lower left corner of the top most one-dollar bill to appear as if mended with transparent tape.

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

CAN YOU BREAK A FIVE?, 1888

oil on canvas

Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1985.1

Painted in a style similar to his other complex currency paintings, Haberle achieved what may be his most impeccable trompe l'oeil composition with Can You Break a Five?.

The bills are nearly perfect in their rendering-from the frayed corners to the worn colors, they show convincing verisimilitude. Haberle also carefully (and wittily) included a warning against counterfeiting on the reverse side of the one-dollar bill. With the aid of a magnifying glass, the words "counterfeit" and "imitation" are visible.

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

TORN-IN-TRANSIT WITH WOMAN'S PHOTOGRAPH, 1888-89

oil on canvas

Memorial Art Gallery, University of Rochester, New York. Marion Stratton Gould Fund

The first in a series of paintings, Torn-In-Transit with Woman's Photograph was first exhibited in an 1895 exhibition and caused viewers to wonder if the painting was in fact a badly damaged parcel. Yet, the Torn-In-Transit series was not intended to be explicitly imitative. The viewer was meant to believe that the packaging was real and that the objects below were the "art," rather than the work as a whole. These varying levels of deception are hallmarks of Haberle's later career.

The woman featured in the photograph is Madame Nordic, a popular opera singer at the time. The loosely rendered impressionistic painting resembles Lucerne, Switzerland, a scene that Haberle most likely copied off a postcard. The twine and paper cast a believable shadow onto the board and the landscape that is carelessly tacked in place. The label of Adams Express is rendered in exact detail, yet is upside down as if it were hastily applied. Furthering the illusion, Haberle painted the wrapping paper and twine onto the edge of the canvas itself.

 

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

TIME AND ETERNITY, 1889-1890

oil on canvas

New Britain Museum of American Art. Stephen B. Lawrence Fund, 1952.01

Time and Eternity is Haberle's version of a vanitas painting, a picture that represents the transience and uncertainty of life. The included objects are from the temporal world-a pocket watch, playing cards, a rosary, a photograph of a girl from a cigarette package, a pawn receipt, a theater ticket, and a fragmentary newspaper clipping-which evoke the theme of time passing and allude to the gambles we all take with our lives and souls.

The clipping refers to Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899), a lecturer tried for blasphemy due to his unorthodox views on issues from slavery to the Bible. Haberle, with his keen sense of wit, was surely delighted by the irony that Ingersoll was imprisoned on the 4th of July, and therefore chose to include the date in the clipping. Furthermore, Haberle references Providence, the town in which Ingersoll was being held. Haberle included this detail due to its obvious religious reference and the irony of Ingersoll's predicament.

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

CLOCK, 1887-1898

oil on canvas and wood construction

Newark Museum, New Jersey. Purchase 1971 Charles W. Engelhard Foundation, 71.166

Here Haberle has taken his illusionist technique to a higher level by stretching canvas over a wooden frame. The painting takes on a dramatic three-dimensionality and the viewer, upon passing the work, assumes that it is an ordinary wall-clock.

Adding to the visual pun, Haberle meticulously painted the landscape on the case-most unlike the inexpensive paintings that graced mass-produced clocks of the era. In doing so, the artist lampooned the middle-class taste for a decorative timepiece in the home.

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

JAPANESE CORNER, 1898

oil on canvas

Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Chauncey Steiger

Painted during the Japonisme craze of the late 19th century, Japanese Corner was undoubtedly inspired by the influx of Asian culture and art following the construction of the Japanese Pavilion at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876.

Haberle chose popular accoutrements to decorate the corner; imports that would have filled the most stylish homes at the time. The painting has a cozy yet chaotic composition-as if someone had previously occupied the space, and yet the slightest breeze would make the elaborate arrangement fall apart.

The embroidery on the screen was painstakingly rendered, each stroke no thicker than a strand of thread. A critic for the New Haven Morning News even wondered "how [can] plain paint be used to make gold thread?" In the lower left, tucked into the frame of the screen, is a makeshift sign-an envelope marked DO NOT TOUCH, likely a reference to the scandal surrounding Haberle's own U.S.A., in which a critic claimed that he picked loose the corner of a painted bank note.

 

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

NIGHT, circa 1909

oil on board

New Britain Museum of American Art. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Victor Demmer, 1966.66

Night is one of Haberle's largest and most mysterious paintings. An illusion of a large stained glass window, the painting remained unfinished at his death in 1933 and was never sold. Haberle left written instructions from 1903 regarding the completion of the painting. Two stained-glass panels frame the central section, which contains an unfinished female nude. In his notes, Haberle changed the title of Night from the original; The Earth and Reflection Moon.

Scholars debate the completedness of this painting. Alfred Frankenstein, one of the most renowned Haberle scholars, believed that the artist intended to trick viewers into thinking the painting was unfinished. Night, he says, "is a completely finished picture of an unfinished picture." This, however, is complicated by the precision of the directions Haberle left behind. Art historian Gertrude Grace Sill believes that such instructions indicate that Night remains unfinished.

On a long white scroll at the left edge is Haberle's twist on the English poet Alexander Pope's epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton's grave: Nature and Nature's Works Lay Hid in Night. (Pope's precise quote is: "Nature and nature's laws lay hid in night.")

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

FRESH ROASTED: PEANUTS, 1887

oil on canvas

Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut. Gift of H. J. Heinz II Charitable and Family Trust, 1979.8

Haberle entered Fresh Roasted: Peanuts in the New Haven Sketch Club's December exhibition, held from December 12th to 17th, 1887. In order to convincingly recreate a bin of peanuts, he employed an old technique of trompe l'oeil; placing the bin of nuts behind a panel of shattered glass. The "glass" slightly obscures the details of the peanuts, and adds to the illusion of depth. On the wooden border, Haberle signed the work twice by both carving his name above and drawing it near a depiction of a face below. There is a lone peanut on the edge of the bin, inviting the viewer to try and pick it up off the canvas.

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

TORN-IN-TRANSIT, 1890­95

oil on canvas

Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. Gift of Amanda K. Berls, 1980

Haberle suffered from extreme eyestrain due to the demands of his trompe l'oeil style, and began to paint less detailed series, such as the Torn-In-Transit compositions. All were approximately fourteen by seventeen inches, and were far less demanding than larger-scale commissions.

The landscape, painted in a broad and rather clumsy style, is of the sort that was produced by the hundreds and sold inexpensively to decorate American homes of the period. Haberle "wrapped" the painting in brown paper that has been almost entirely torn off the package, creating a frame of sorts for the painting below. The contrast between the ideal world of the landscape and the commonplace reality of the torn paper, string, and shipping labels creates a jarring sense of disharmony.

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

CHINESE FIRECRACKERS, circa 1890

oil on canvas

Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, Connecticut. The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1964.156

Haberle's previous training as an engraver and lithographer is evident in the precise lettering on the sign that forms the background of Chinese Firecrackers. Like Japanese Corner, this painting was grounded in the Japonisme craze of the late 19th century during which imports from the Far East became extremely fashionable.

In the center of the composition, obscuring some of the lettering, is another Chinese specialty; a cluster of red firecrackers ripped out of a package and hung from a nail. A single red Cannon Cracker rests precariously at the edge of the sign, casting a slight shadow. Haberle used this provocative device in several paintings, tempting the viewer to reach out and grab the illusion. The sign was intended to identify a Chinese laundry with "Guarantee All Clothes Washed Good as New." He signed his name with a Chinese twist at the lower right as "HAB-ER-LEE."

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

THE CHALLENGE, circa 1890

oil on canvas

Thomas Colville Fine Art

A recent discovery, The Challenge is one of Haberle's most mysterious works. It is thought to be a commission due to its specific subject matter and overt masculinity. A layered narrative of American history, the handwriting on the note has been identified as George Washington's script, which the artist fastidiously replicated.

The note reads: "-son, Esq. Sir, nothing but a meeting on a field of honor will satisfy me after our recent episode. Accept this challenge or be forever branded a coward. Yr. obed. Serv-L.G." The text may refer to the duel between Button Gwinnett and Lachlan McIntosh in which Gwinnett was killed on May 16, 1777. After McIntosh offered harsh criticism of Gwinnett's embarrassing attempt to invade British Florida, they had agreed to duel and Gwinnett was subsequently killed. Placing the bullet holes where Gwinnett would have signed is a classic Haberle touch of irony.

 

John Frederick Peto

United States, 1854-1907

LINCOLN AND STAR OF DAVID, 1904

oil on canvas

Private collection

Peto's father passed away in 1895 and thereafter many of his trompe l'oeil paintings allude to the theme of mortality. This painting is filled with such associations. The cracked panel, Star of David, smoking cigarette, and photograph of Lincoln all serve as symbols of martyrdom and emphasize the ephemerality of life.

 

William Michael Harnett

United States, born Ireland, 1848-1892

LATAKIA II, circa 1880

oil on canvas

Private collection

This painting demonstrates Harnett's expertise in trompe l'oeil. In Latakia II, the tome Scottish Chiefs by English novelist Jane Porter appears, lying on its side. This novel, set in the British Isles, centered on the thirteenth-century knight Sir William Wallace, defender of king and country. Its prominence in the painting is in keeping with Harnett's admiration for medieval codes of chivalry and stories of brave, honorable, and dutiful men. A canister of Latakia tobacco, a specially prepared tobacco originally produced in Syria, appears in the center of the composition and lends the painting its name.

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

OFFICE BOARD FOR CHRISTIAN FASER, 1881

oil on canvas

Private collection

 

John Frederick Peto

United States, 1854-1907

OFFICE BOARD FOR ELI KEEN'S SONS, 1888

oil on canvas

Private collection

This painting is a prime example of Peto's prowess with the still life genre and in particular his experimentation with the signboard motif. Such paintings included illusionistic depictions of assembled correspondence, photographs, and other ephemera to create pictorial memorials for family and friends. Eli Keen was a dry goods merchant from Island Heights, New Jersey, where Peto lived. The artist has positioned a calendar with floral motifs in the center of the image-coyly matching the date he executed the painting-and around this are images of Eli Keen and his sons as well as envelopes, an advertisement, and a newspaper clipping all against a wood background.

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

PUPPET, n.d.

graphite on paper

New Britain Museum of American Art

 

Maker Unidentified

JOHN HABERLE'S POCKET WATCH AND ROSARY, n.d.

mixed media,

New Britain Museum of American Art. Gift of Vera Haberle, 1952.01.1

 

 

John Haberle

United States, 1856-1933

SKULL SKETCHES, n.d.

graphite on board

New Britain Museum of American Art

 

Maker Unidentified

COLLECTION OF JOHN HABERLE PAPERS AND PHOTOGRAPHS,

ink on paper; photographic prints, varied

Courtesy of the Haberle Family

When Sanford B. D. Low (1905-1964), the director of the New Britain Museum of Art in Connecticut, visited Haberle's daughter and purchased Time and Eternity, she delayed his departure and ran upstairs to retrieve her father's pocket watch and rosary beads, saying he would want them to accompany the painting.

 

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