William M. Harnett

(1848-1892)

Willaim M. Harnett became a still-life specialist while living in New York in the mid 1870s. There he executed still lifes of fruit displayed on a marble tabletop. After resettling in Philadelphia in 1876, he began to paint still lifes featuring man-made objects, such as pipes, mugs, inkwells, letters, coins and books, and to experiment seriously with trompe l'oeil illusionism. Upon his return he also began to explore the Dutch Old Master theme of the vanitas still life, incorporating the traditional vanitas motif of a skull with other objects of implied mortality. "To This Favor - A Thought from Shakespeare" dates from 1879, and is one of three known vanitas images dating from the artist’s early career. The first part of the title is from Hamlet (Act V, Scene I): “"Now get you to my lady’s chamber and tell her, let her paint an inch thick. To this favor she must come".” A second version of this subject titled "To This Favor" and also dated 1879, is in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. Both works contain the same skull, books and quotation from Hamlet. The pictures also relate to Harnett’'s "Mortality and Immortality" (1876, Wichita Art Museum).

William H. Gerdts has remarked that “"The traditional vanitas implication here would be the transience of even the great and famous (Shakespeare). However, an alternative is open to speculation, namely, that things of the intellect and of the creative mind endure after death. On the other hand, Harnett’'s allusion here is probably also a direct one; the most famous skull in literature, after all, is probably that of ‘poor Yorik’ whom the spectator may, along with Hamlet, know well" (Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life 1801-1939 [Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1981], p. 157). Chad Mandeles has further noted that “"even the endeavors of Shakespeare are made to seem no more enduring than the paper on which they are printed, for the presentation of his celebrated works on . . . a tattered page have the ironic effect of reminding the viewer of the fugacity of wisdom and fame”" (“Grave Counsel: Harnett and Vanitas,” essay in William M. Harnett [New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992], p. 255).