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A Bachelor’s Drawer: an Appreciation of Trompe–L’œil Letter Racks

23 February, 2016

One of the Author’s favorite types of paintings are trompe–l’œil letter racks. Perhaps it’s the archivist in her that admires the preservation of ephemera in art. She greatly enjoys pouring over the details of paintings by Messrs. Collier, Harnet, Peto, Haberle and friends. The Philadelphia Museum of Art recently had an exhibition on American still life with an impressive collection of letter rack paintings. The Author would like to share some favorites, beginning with John Haberle’s A Bachelor’s Drawer (1890 – 94).
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In his drawer, Haberle has bits and pieces of a $10 bill, twenty Shillings, and two dueling Civil War currencies: 50 Confederate dollars (hope he didn’t have too much of that useless currency) and a 10¢ U.S. fractional bill depicting Lady Liberty. Did Haberle trick you into believing these to be real, genuine currency? Apparently the US government feared people would: Haberle was warned to ‘stop painting greenbacks’. He boldly continued to paint and exhibit currency in his paintings, even after William Harnett was arrested and charged with counterfeiting because of the accuracy of his paintings of currency.

As a disclaimer (or perhaps bragging) Haberle scribbled over Lady Liberty that ‘this note with a lot of counterfeit money was taken by detectives from … in New York Jan 1st 1865. Experts claimed this to be genuine’. Haberle was so accurate in his depictions of currency that he was warned against it by the U.S. government.

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‘It Fooled The Cat’ reads this real headline from the New Haven Evening Leader about a cat who curled up in front of the fire of Haberle’s oil painting ‘Grandma’ Hearthstone’. The other three clippings also refer to incidents where Haberle’s trompe–l’œils have duped the public: a Chicago art critic who accused Haberle of pasting real currency on his paintings, rather than painting them himself. The critic was proven wrong and apologized. The bottom clipping references the government’s warning to Haberle about painting such accurate representations of currency.

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In this detail, we see some mathematical equations scribbled next to a fellow with extraordinary hair and moustache; ‘How to Name the Baby’, a humorous choice of reading material for a bachelor; a thermostat shows 70 degrees Fahrenheit; a collection of tickets (theater, steamship, baggage); a King of Spades and 9 of Hearts; a cigarette stub and match box (with two different types of matches); a penknife with a broken mother of pearl handle inset; a few ‘girlie cards’ – he is a bachelor, remember – but look closer and you’ll see the middle card depicts not a scantily clad lady, but a rather grotesque looking baby. Finally, a photograph of the artist himself, looking a bit startled.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Sally Jarvis permalink
    24 February, 2016 9:27 am

    Amazing.

    Charlotte Lancaster

    On Tue, Feb 23, 2016 at 2:27 PM, the Diligent Observer wrote:

    > a Diligent Observer posted: “One of the Author’s favorite types of > paintings are trompe–l’œil letter racks. Perhaps it’s the archivist in her > that admires the preservation of ephemera in art. She greatly enjoys > pouring over the details of paintings by Messrs. Collier, Harnet, Peto, H” >

  2. Dadork permalink
    25 February, 2016 7:05 am

    Wow! You looked at these a lot closer than I did when I was at the exhibit! Even now I had to zoom up to over 200% to see that strangely attired baby!

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