Shinplaster with Exhibition Label

William Michael Harnett

"Shinplaster with Exhibition Label," is a small painting on canvas presented as a wooden board upon which a ten-cent "shinplaster" Civil War bill has been pasted but is deteriorating. Immediately below the bill is a scrap of paper that has been snipped out of the newspaper. From a distance it appears to contain readable type but on close inspection is unintelligible, painted to suggest news type rather than reproduce the letters. At the lower left-hand corner a number 37 appears printed on an irregular label, purporting to either refer to the bill and scrap presented as mementos or to the painting itself, suggestively "behind" the exhibition label. In this sense Harnett is playing with multiple layers of deception - a classic trompe l'oeil strategy. If we realize that the newsprint is false upon close inspection, comparatively, we might suspect that the "shinplaster" is the real thing. In contrast it is carefully painted, with an impasto that suggests the wrinkles and edges to a frayed piece of pasted paper. However, that illusion breaks down - or becomes unstable - in light of the even more mimetically painted exhibition label, "tucked-in" between the edge of the frame and canvas, as though added by human hands after the picture was submitted for public display. All of these elements add to the enticement and philosophical puzzle embedded in the picture. Harnett's painting is in effect a reflection on the nature of truth in art, value judgments in academic genres (still life and small-scale have always struggled for legitimacy in the academy), and the experience of the beholder. It is the sensual and intellectual tension and mystery that occurs before this painting that gives it a great power and fascination. These qualities underlie Harnett's best work.
Date of Birth
Oil on canvas
5 x 6 7/8 in. (12.7 x 17.4625 cm.)
Accession #
Credit Line
The Donald and Jean I. Stralem Collection, Bequest of Jean I. Stralem