William Harnett developed the trompe-l’oeil technique in American painting. His early work shows the style and technique which made him popular. Using a carefully arranged and balanced composition he creates a seemingly casual image: a table bearing a number of domestic objects.
In Materials for a Leisure Hour, he attention to detail with which he captures each object and its textures and reflections is combined with the sense of immediacy and instantaneity conferred by the pipe smoke, the burning matches and the breadcrumbs scattered on the table.
Harnett emigrated to Philadelphia as a child; he first learned engraving and then studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and at the National Academy of Design and Cooper Union. During the 1880s he spent a number of years traveling in Europe, living in London, Munich, and Paris. While traveling in Europe he painted his best-known work, After the Hunt (1885, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco). In 1886 he settled in New York City.
He executed mainly still-lifes and excelled in the rendering of textures and trompe-l’oeil (eye-deceiving) realistic effects. Other examples of his work are Emblems of Peace (Springfield Museum of Fine Arts), and The Faithful Colt (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford).
His work, popular with the public, was generally dismissed by critics. After a long period of disrepute, his works again were appreciated and sought after when mid-20th-century critics recognized Harnett’s outstanding skill at abstract composition.