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The Old Violin, 1886

William Michael Harnett

National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Richard Mellon Scaife in honor of Paul Mellon

oil on canvas

The subject of one of William Michael Harnett’s most famous paintings is deceptively simple—a violin, a sheet of music, a small newspaper clipping, and a blue envelope are shown against a background formed by a green wooden door. A master of the tromp l’oeil technique, Harnett created a work of multi-layered meanings, the essence of which is the transience of time, illustrated by signs of wear and age throughout the painting. The musical references, one from Bellini's La Sonnambula and the other the popular song "Helas, Quelle Douleur," are concerned with temporal change. However, it is the violin itself, silent and worn with use, that speaks most evocatively of past pleasures.