John Haberle: A Counterfeit Artist

Take a good look at this picture. Does it look like a photograph? Well look again, its a painting! And its 130 years old! I was at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. the other day walking through a room of still life paintings when I came across one called Imitation by artist John Haberle. I thought it was so detailed and real-looking that I had to stop and admire it for a good long while. Usually when I’m walking around the National Gallery I stop and look at the paintings that have funny hats or interesting facial expressions. When I’m being serious I’m usually more drawn to landscapes, especially from Hudson River School artists. But this time it was Haberle’s painting of what looks like the contents of someone’s pockets tossed onto a board and framed.

John Haberle, Imitation, 1887, oil on canvas, Image credit: Smithsonian Gallery of Art.

Upon further research, I learned that Haberle was not just a still life painter, he was particularly gifted at a special kind of still life painting called “trompe l’oeil” (French for “fool the eye”). Though the art-style had been around since at least the Renaissance, it was particularly popular in the late 19th century in Europe and the United States. Perhaps artists felt like they had to compete with photography which seemed like the most “real” depiction of real life. Other popular American artists who specialized in trompe l’oeil were John Peto and William Harnett. According to one writer, “Trompe l’oeil images share an affective intention of double wonderment: first, to make their viewers wonder “Is this real? and What is real?” and, second, to make us wonder (in the sense of “marvel”) at the artist’s virtuosity in provoking such questions in the first place.” Where photographs offer a way for viewers to look through a “window” at reality, trompe l’oeil paintings subvert this kind of realism in a way, by appearing “real” for a moment before the viewer realizes that it is not.

An easy way to tell a still life and trompe l’oeil apart is by looking at the depth and colors used. Trompe l’oeil needs a very shallow depth (usually an inch or less) of field as opposed to still life where subjects can appear to be several feet away. The shallow depth helps fool the eye no matter what angle or distance the viewer is from the painting. Color choice is also important: bright and warm colors cause objects to seem closer to the viewer and dark/dull colors recede. A careful application of depth and color can cause even the most critical viewer to question their senses for a moment!

Haberle’s self-portrait disguised as a tin-type photograph in Imitation.

Haberle, born in 1856, was originally trained as an engraver and worked at the Peabody Museum of Natural History in New York for a time doing exhibit design. Having worked in museums and done a little exhibit design myself, I now sure that I was woefully unqualified compared to Haberle. If anyone knows of any pictures or design plans of Haberle’s museum exhibits (many were paleontology exhibits under the direction of Othniel Charles Marsh), let me know! Anyways, Haberle started taking classes at the National Academy of Design in 1884 which is where he was exposed to trompe l’oeil artwork for the first time. I imagine he was drawn (no pun intended) to trompe l’oeil because of it’s attention to meticulous detail.

Haberle’s Imitation was painted just a few years later and exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1887. Probably stemming from his background in engraving, money was one of the artist’s favorite subjects. Training in engraving also gave Haberle the skill to paint the microscopic detail in the dollar bill and fifty cent note. Cross-hatching, a technique used by engravers to make currency images look three-dimensional, was probably scratched onto the painting with a pin or needle. What a commitment to realism! Here is what one National Gallery curator has to say about Imitation:

To give the fifty-cent bill and the dollar bill the appearance of real currency glued on the canvas, Haberle gave them a slight relief quality. He built up the ragged edges to catch light in the same way that pasted dollar bills would, if looked at from the side. (About a similar work, an art critic wrote that Haberle must have glued on the currency and covered it with a “thin scumble of paint.”)

Haberle’s experience as an engraver can really be seen in this detail.

Haberle was so good at painting currency like the dollar bill and “fractional” fifty cent note in Imitation, that the critics claimed that the work “was done by pasting a genuine bill with a mastic varnish upon a sheet of gelatin, that by skillful manipulation the pulp of paper had been rubbed away, leaving the inks of the bill’s design alone, and that this had then been glued downwards upon the canvas and the gelatin cut away with acids, leaving the imprint perfect.” An 1898 article in “The Illustrated American” went on to report that Haberle traveled to Chicago to confront his critics personally and demanded that they perform a “searching examination of the work.” Before long, the critics confessed that the painting was indeed genuine. “Mr. Haberle was vindicated and commissions have been pouring in ever since.” What a story!

There are several other trompe l’oeil paintings that Haberle completed after Imitation. My favorite of these is called The Bachelor’s Drawer and depicts the contents of  bachelor’s pockets including theater ticket stubs, playing cards, girlie pictures, a pipe, and (of course) more money. There is also a small pamphlet labeled “How to Name the Baby,” suggesting that Haberle’s subject won’t be living the care-free bachelor life for long… Unfortunately, The Bachelor’s Drawer was his last trompe l’oeil. Fading eyesight eventually forced Haberle to abandon painting subjects with such tiny details and switch to flowers, “the last refuge for the artist whose eyes and hands have both failed them.”

The Bachelors Drawer
John Haberle, The Bachelor’s Drawer, 1894. Image credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Haberle died in 1933. Fortunately for us, his paintings still look as fresh and new as if they were painted yesterday and are on display in the National Gallery, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston! If you’d like to learn more about John Haberle, some of his personal letters have been digitized and are available at the Archives of American Art. The archives also has an autobiographical account that Haberle wrote about his own life, but you’ll have to visit in person to read that! To learn more about Haberle and other similar artists who lived around the turn of the century, I also recommend Alfred Frankenstien’s “After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters 1870-1900.”

Haberle Business Card
Haberle’s business card. And again, more evidence of his engraving background! Image credit: Archives of American Art.

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