Saturday, September 27, 2008
William Michael Harnett. The Old Violin with Weed and Rolling Papers, 1886.
Our first American! Ah, this painting brings many memories to me – I have a print of it framed in my office (both at home and at the University), a reminder of the waxing and waning of the artistic (and scholarly!) process. Let me digress. For a time, during the late 1990s, I found myself at an academic impasse. I was, at the time, a visiting scholar at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, teaching a course on Low Country painting and writing a piece for the Journal of the Association of Art Historians on Claesz's late-period still-lifes with bongs.
To be honest – I was alone in America and frustrated at my lack of motivation in my own work. On a whim, I boarded a train to Washington, D.C., for a change of surroundings and to visit America's sublime National Gallery. As I walked the steps to the Gallery, vexed about my work and filled with anxious tension, I felt an ineffable pull – I was drawn to this, Harnett's spectacularly playful trompe l'oiel, and immediately, unexplainably, I brightened; my breath became fuller, my blood stronger. Never before had I taken American painting seriously (Forgive me! I have learned much since then.). But here was an American with the same verve, tenacity, and wit as any European painter. I was utterly taken by this painting; the resting violin, the envelope, the weed and rolling papers all pulled forth a new but utterly simple realization from me: like the violin's sweet music unplayed, but ready, potential, in its strings, my own inspiration was inside me, ready for the bow to strike, to set the taut, kinetic string of inspiration vibrating in tune. The violin is clearly used, but the letter reveals its owner's communications, his inner correspondences still vibrant; the sheet music is fresh and exciting; the weed is not dried-up. The door is much-used – a life passing in and out of activity.
On the train back to Boston, deep in the night and the American hinterland (so different from what Harnett must have seen), I smiled – contentedly and for the first time in weeks. I hope that this painting touches you as it did me.