Art At Noon

William Harnett and the Reinvention of Still-Life Painting

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Lori Waselchuk
William Michael Harnett (1848-1892), Still Life, 1887, Oil on canvas, framed: 43 3/4 x 39 1/4 x 2 1/2 in. (111.125 x 99.695 x 6.35 cm.); unframed: 24 1/4 x 20 in. (61.595 x 50.8 cm.),

Nika Elder will talk about the re-emergence and popularity of still life painting after the Civil War through the lens of PAFA-trained painter William Michael Harnett. Elevating the significance of Harnett's academic training, her talk explains how and why he transformed the genre of still life to assume the role that history painting had once played. As photographs of Black soldiers and amputees complicated conventional understandings of the heroic male body, Harnett deployed and pictured objects as a means to address the past without depicting the human figure. Harnett's work helps us understand how the Civil War impacted academic painting even—and especially—when it seems far removed from it.

Nika Elder is Assistant Professor of American Art at American University in Washington, D.C. Her research and teaching examine the reciprocal relationship between art and race throughout modern American history. Her first book, William Harnett's Curious Objects: Still-Life Painting after the American Civil War, was published by University of California Press in October 2022. She is currently at work on a monograph tentatively titled John Singleton Copley's Taste for Flesh. Related articles appear in Art History and Winterthur Portfolio. 

Art At Noon lectures are supported by the Lefkoe family, in memory of a beloved member of the docent corps, Mildred T. Lefkoe.

Image: William Michael Harnett (1848-1892), Still Life, 1887, Oil on canvas, framed: 43 3/4 x 39 1/4 x 2 1/2 in. (111.125 x 99.695 x 6.35 cm.); unframed: 24 1/4 x 20 in. (61.595 x 50.8 cm.), The Vivian O. and Meyer P. Potamkin Collection, Bequest of Vivian O. Potamkin.