William Michael Harnett was a trompe l’oeil specialist. Trompe l’oeil is an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions. He used deceptive illusionism to paint dead game, printed matter, domestic bric-a-brac, and objects associated with the enjoyment of music, literature, and art.


“His oils were acquired by cultivated art aficionados such as Thomas B. Clarke and George Hearn, but the majority of Harnett’s patrons were affluent businessmen, manufacturers, brewers, and merchants who were drawn to his male-oriented motifs and his “fool-the-eye” realism.” — Hirshel & Adler

“Harnett was the most imitated and skillful still-life painter in late nineteenth-century America, celebrated for his many arrangements that pushed the art of trompe l’oeil (French for “fool the eye”) to its limits.” –The Metropolitan Museum

William Harnett was born in Clonakilty, County Cork, Ireland. Harnett was brought to America by his parents while still a baby, and he was raised in Philadelphia, where as a teenager, he learned to engrave metal.  At age 18, he began studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In 1869, he moved to New York, working as an engraver for Tiffany & Company and attending evening classes at the National Academy of Design and The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Harnett left Philadelphia in 1880. He traveled to Europe, visiting London and Frankfurt before settling in Munich in early 1881 where he stayed until 1885. He then went to Paris for the spring and summer before returning to the United States and settling in New York City.  He suffered greatly from rheumatism and kidney disease. He died at New York Hospital on October 29, 1892 at the age of 44.

Major Exhibitions:

  • Memorial exhibition of his work, held at Earle’s Galleries in Philadelphia in 1892.
  • American Realists and Magic Realists, held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1943.
  • A major retrospective exhibition organized by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, in 1992.


He was inducted into The Cooper Union Hall of Fame in 2009.


  • Still Life—Violin and Music

  • William Michael Harnett Biography, American, 1848 – 1892, National Gallery of Art Website, Link
  • William Harnett: Trompe l’Oeil, Slide Show, National Gallery of Art Website, Link
  • William Michael Harnett, Hirshel & Adler, Website, Link
  • William Harnett, Joslyn Art Museum website, New York. Link