William Harnett’s Still Life: Clay Pipe, Tobacco, Matches and Poster, on view in the second-floor American Art Gallery, is not a large painting, yet it captures the viewer. The more one looks at it, the more lifelike the objects appear. However, there is more to this painting than sleight of brush. Still Life: Clay Pipe, Tobacco, Matches and Poster encapsulates 19th-century masculinity.

Harnett was a master at blurring the line between illusion and reality, perfecting trompe l’oeil, or “trick-of-eye.” Stare at the portrait long enough and your mind starts wandering to possible scenarios—as the nearest match dangles off the table you can imagine if falling to the floor. The ashes sprinkle off the pipe as it was set down. You can almost reach for the newspaper. Harnett’s still life paintings were astounding, not only for its verisimilitude, but for how ordinary the items depicted were.

For as ordinary as the items in Still Life: Clay Pipe, Tobacco, Matches and Poster are, a viewer can’t help but feel an aura of manliness. A painting such as this one would be found in the study or office of a middle-class businessman, probably near a “no women allowed” sign. It’s not hard to imagine 19th-century men, pipe clenched between teeth as they study a painting portraying quintessential white male comforts not usually permissible for women at that time.

You could see this painting as a precursor of Dr. Pepper’s 2011 campaign for Dr. Pepper TEN—the manliest low-calorie soda in the history of mankind, with the tagline “It’s not for women.” The campaign included commercials that involved big, bearded men doing manly things such as enjoying the woods, carrying trees to make canoes, eating bark, and telling women to “keep romantic comedies and lady drinks” because this soda has only “ten MANLY calories.” While these ads were a parody on masculinity, a similar attitude is retained in Still Life: Clay Pipe, Tobacco, Matches and Poster.

Harnett possessed the skill to transform ordinary objects, inspiring many painters to master trompe l’oeil. While everyone can appreciate Harnett’s technique in his still-life paintings, few can experience the sensation 19th-century men enjoyed when they were reminded of their pleasures in stressful times. To those men, Still Life: Clay Pipe, Tobacco, Matches and Poster provided a much-needed diversion.

William Harnett (American, 1848-1892)
Still Life: Clay Pipe, Tobacco, Matches and Poster, 1877
Oil on canvas
Gift of John Wyatt Gregg Allerton, 1964 (3211.1)