“John Haberle: American Master of Illusion,” at the New Britain Museum of American Art, focuses on the least well-known of a trio of nineteenth-century trompe l’oeil artists. Like his contemporaries William Michael Harnett (1848–92) and John Frederick Peto (1854–1907), Haberle (1856–1933) specialized in a subgenre of still life as stunt verisimilitude. The tradition can be dated back to the legendary Greek painter Zeuxis (fifth century B.C.), who painted grapes so realistically that birds came to peck at them. In post-Civil War America, trompe l’oeil paintings were often considered novelty pieces, commissioned for barrooms and businessmen’s offices. Twentieth-century critical re-evaluations found more than clever tricks in these images, which emphasized—in a way that appealed to modernists—the flatness of the picture plane and hinted, conceptually, at the fictional nature of representation itself. One of Haberle’s specialities was trompe l’oeil United States paper currency, depicted in staggering detail and with convincing marks of wear. The bill in Can You Break a Five? (1888) is an interesting historical artifact, with a portrait of Andrew Jackson and an illustration of a pioneer couple and their dog. Haberle positions the five-dollar bill diagonally across a partial one-dollar bill, and the visible reverse includes a government warning about counterfeiting. The text can be deciphered with the aid of a magnifying glass. Haberle’s cheekiness earned him a warning from the U.S. Treasury. Like Asher B. Durand, Haberle did his apprenticeship as an engraver. While Durand is by far the greater and more ambitious painter, this shared background demonstrates the pragmatic skills American artists drew on as they were building their careers.
Haberle tackles meatier subject matter in his “Torn-in-Transit” series, depicting landscape paintings with their brown paper wrapping shredded, tied with string and plastered with shipping labels. The yellow label of the Adams Express Company, New Haven, Connecticut, adds a nice punch of color. Torn-in-Transit (1890–95) features a mountain scene in the style of Albert Bierstadt, artfully framed by a ragged border of paper and neatly segmented by taut white string. The contemporary realist Claudio Bravo has created a series of modern riffs on this formula with his illusionistically wrapped and tied canvases, although he shows the raw reverse side of the painting. The tension between the hyper-realism of the depiction and the abstract blankness of the subject gives these works a philosophical frisson. A recently rediscovered painting, The Challenge (c. 1890), is another piece of nineteenth-century Americana that looks remarkably fresh. Against a grey-painted wooden backdrop, most likely a door, Haberle presents a dueling pistol, suspended from a nail, and a scrawled note demanding satisfaction, secured with tacks. Five concentric circles have been carved into the door for target practice, and the tight cluster of bull’s-eye shots, scorching the note, shows the recipient of the challenge has a good aim. The implicit narrative is grounded, however, in formal savvy that lifts the composition beyond anecdotal interest. The off-center framing of the door and the hooked diagonal of the pistol are strong elements, and the target gouged into the handsome weathered grey paint suggests why Jasper Johns would find the motif so arresting three-quarters of a century later.
The signature image for the exhibition is Time and Eternity (c. 1889–90, cover). As Gertrude Grace Sill writes in John Haberle: American Master of Illusion (New Britain Museum of American Art, distributed, Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2009), Time and Eternity is Haberle’s version of a vanitas picture. The picture takes its title from a scrap of newspaper glued to the yellowish wood of the backdrop, but the theme is explored through the objects depicted: a pocket watch with a cracked crystal, paper money, ticket stubs, a cheap photograph of a pretty girl and playing cards, a wooden rosary with a strikingly primitive crucifix. The play between sacred and secular is straightforward, and the viewer may be drawn to clever details, such as the shadows cast by the bent nails holding the board in place.
Time and Eternity is 14-by-10 inches, and most of Haberle’s paintings are compact in size and modest in ambition. When he chooses a larger format, he seems to lose focus. Night (c. 1909) is 6½-by-4½ feet, a depiction of a stained-glass window partially covered by a plush brown velvet curtain. The nude female figure in the panel is just drawn in, and it remains unclear whether Haberle intended to leave it unfinished. The frame of veneered and inlaid wood is handsomely executed, as is a decorative panel with heraldic armor and a scroll reading “Nature and Nature’s Works Lay Hid in Night,” a variation on Alexander Pope’s epitaph for Sir Isaac Newton. Even if the picture is unfinished, it is hard to imagine the artist bringing it to a successful resolution. But Haberle’s smaller works have a chamber-music-scale appeal; we can see him thinking through the visual possibilities of everyday things and using his sleight-of-hand prowess to investigate the limits of illusionism. The exhibition was on view through March 14, 2010, at the New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut 06052. Telephone (860) 229-0257. On the web at www.nbmaa.org. It travels to the Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania (April 17–July 11, 2010), and the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine (September 18–December 12, 2010).