After Janice Simon’s entertaining and eye-opening <groan> session on visuality and looking in periodicals, I decided to take a little break from print yesterday afternoon and spent some time at the Met. But what did I encounter there? You guessed it–more print culture.
If the late-19th century was an age of ocularity, it was also an age of print, and nowhere do the two merge more evocatively than in the late-nineteenth century trompe l’oeil paintings of John Haberle, William Michael Harnett, and John F. Peto.
John Haberle, A Bachelor’s Drawer (1890-1894)
In the painting above, Haberle reproduces, in an evenly flat, painted surface (no impasto here), a drawer front; but if you look closer, you’ll see that what Haberle has actually painted is a painting of the front of a drawer (the brown frame immediately inside the black one is, in fact, painted). Haberle, who was trained at the New York Academy of Design, was known for playing these kinds of visual jokes on the viewer, and this painting is full of them. While many of these jokes are based on visual tricks, many others incorporate elements of print culture– newspaper clippings, postcards and chromos, playing cards, ticket stubs, and money. In fact, Harnett and Haberle’s depictions of currency were so convincing that both of them were issued cease-and-desist orders by the government.
Detail from Haberle, A Bachelor’s Drawer
Perhaps the reason why the trompe l’oeil painters incorporated so much print culture into their paintings was because they were two-dimensional, thus lending themselves to visual trickery. In a way, it was kind of a cheat: easier to paint a 2-dimensional thing in two dimensions, right?
But there’s more going on here. The artists assign great significance to these seemingly ephemeral, throwaway objects, and take great care in depicting printed matter. Peto used periodicals themselves to great effect in limning the supposed owner of his Office Board, one of a series of paintings that were often commissioned by their subjects. These were a different kind of portrait, one that demonstrates a perceived connection between mass print culture and individual identity.
This is a “portrait” of a Philadelphia chiropractor, Bernard Goldberg; his photograph is ostensibly tucked behind a scientific journal at the top of the painting, while a couple of other magazines are tacked on underneath. Maybe some of you can identify these periodicals. A gold star to anyone who can identify the newspaper from which the partially effaced clipping affixed to the right side of the board was snipped!
Harnett’s Still Life–Violin and Music (1888) also recalled Jennifer & Norma’s presentation yesterday of the 19th-century “ladies'” (or ladie’s, if you prefer) magazine and the inclusion of sheet music within periodicals.
Behind the violin, Harnett has carefully reproduced the music for a popular song, “Saint Kevin,” adapted from Thomas Moore’s poem “Glendalough.” If you look closely enough, you will see that Harnett has taken pains to include the publisher of this music, J. J. Daly, located at 419 Grand St., NYC. Sheet music was included in many 19th-century periodicals; the early Sunday newspaper supplements that jacked up the circulation of Pulitzer’s New York World and Hearst’s Journal included them as well, bringing the latest tunes from the Tin Pan Alley music-making machine (not to mention the poetry of Victorian England) to the pianos of middle-class America. Incidentally, pianos, like bicycles and cameras, were advertised heavily in turn-of-the-century American periodicals as markers of status.
Sheet music: yet another overlooked component of both print culture and periodical culture, especially in New York, which produced so much of it. I was talking with Kelly during our surprise wine-and-cheese reception at John Jay College and she suggested that in thinking about a term that might, more accurately than “print culture,” encompass the different forms of periodicals and their intersections and interactions with other cultural forms, we might think about “media ecologies” or “media systems.” I like these terms. What say you?