Click on photos to enlarge.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

John Haberle

Torn in Transit, 1890-95, John Haberle
Copyright, Jim Lane
Painted Paint Painting, 1994, Jim Lane
Most artists have an innate fascination with art similar to their own. Although I've always painted portraits, my second most common painting type is the still-life. I've painted dozens of them and, unfortunately, most of them I still have. Still-lifes are desperately hard to sell. I'm not sure why that is, because it's not always been that way. Back in the late 1800s, they were quite popular. I guess they kind of became passé after the Victorian era and the advent of Modern Art. There are many types of still-lifes, even ones commissioned like portraits, such as antique autos, which kind of blurs the line between still-lifes and portraiture. Paintings of cars are seldom difficult to sell. I guess I'd have to say my favorite type of still-life is what's come to be called trompe l'oeil or (fool the eye). The term is French so I'm guessing such art must have its roots somewhere back in the lengthy history of the French still-life tradition. One of my own attempts at this type of still-life is Painted Paint Painting (right) from 1994.

A Single Drawer, 1892, John Haberle
John Haberle, Self-portrait, 1882
Though I guess I've been vaguely aware of the number of artists in the past who have practiced this demanding form of meticulously detailed painting, the main to names which have always come to mind are those of William M. Harnett, and John Frederick Peto. The two painted in the late 1800s and were highly competitive. Although their works are fairly easy to distinguish, one from the other, it does take some familiarity to do so. To complicate matters, as if two such artists weren't enough, let me add yet another name, same era, same style, and pretty much the same content--John Haberle. His A Single Drawer (above) and Torn in Transit (top) is typical of his work and his sense of humor. One look at his rather stylized self-portrait (left) and you get the feeling, this guy would have been fun to be around. One glance and you can see also that it was obviously painted from a photograph, not a mirror.

Imitation, 1887, John Haberle (see detail below, left)
Imitation (detail). Haberle was known to use a needle
to scratch the illusion of engraving lines into the paint.
John Haberle was born in 1856 in New Haven, Connecticut, into a family of Swiss immigrants. As was often the custom around that time, John left school when he was fourteen to apprentice as an engraver. That accounts for a lot in terms of the look and subject content of his work. He loved painting bank notes to the point he was warned by the Secret Service to stop doing so. He didn't. Not to worry, it's doubtful the guardians of the currency at the time could have made a case pegging him as a counterfeiter. (Sure, judge, whenever I need a little extra cash, I just paint me some.) His still-life paintings were probably worth far more than any money he painted into them, in any case.

I guess I wasn't the first painter to paint paint, though Haberle's is a bit neater than mine.
Portrait of the Artist's Mother, 1884,
John Haberle
Actually, Haberle didn't begin painting until around 1884 when he started taking classes at the National Academy of Design in New York. One of his first paintings was a portrait of his mother (left). It's not hard to see that Haberle apparently didn't care much for portraiture, not to mention the fact that he wasn't really very good at it either. He was good, however, at drawing and painting money. It would seem he naturally gravitated to the painting style most closely related to his vocation--the engraving of printing plates. It's not known if Haberle ever met Harnett or Peto, though it's not unlikely that he did, and quite likely he knew of their work. His own work was so popular it was often displayed where such art seldom appeared--saloons, liquor stores, bookstores, banks, and hotels.

Vase with Whisk Broom, 1884, John Haberle.
The draughtsmanship is good, but the depth can be measured in feet,
not to mention the fact that Haberle's handling of the paint is much too "rich."
(Notice the attempt at illusionary water spilling from the vase.)
Time and Eternity, 1889, John Haberle
How does one tell a Trompe l'oeil still-life from an ordinary still life? Look at one of Haberle's early still-lifes, Vase with Whisk Broom (above) from his Academy of Design days. It is, in fact, pretty ordinary. But more than that, a Trompe l'oeil still-life, first and foremost, demands a shallow depth of field (the more shallow the better). An inch in depth is good, more than that and the eye expects to see a change in the relationship of the various objects as one changes position before the painting. Likewise, as Peto was fond of doing, color also plays a role, lighter, brighter, warmer colors cause objects to appear closer to the viewer, darker and duller objects recede. Had Haberle's vase been white, rather than a cool blue it would have "popped" forward. His Time an Eternity (right) from 1889, has a very shallow depth of field, while also making much better use of this general rule regarding colors.

A Misunderstanding, 1892, John Haberle
Roses, John Haberle
A major handicap for all painters as the grow old, but especially those in the habit of painting tiny details, is the strain it puts on their eyes. There's also the problem of rheumatism as a result of handling tiny brushes, but that's another matter. Miniaturists very often lost their livelihood as their eyesight failed them. Electric lights and improved optics have helped, but take it from me, the problem persists. In Haberle's case, it forced him to switch from trompe l'oeil to other subjects and more traditional still-lifes. His A Misunderstanding (above) is endearing, though the exact nature of the "misunderstanding" might be easily misunderstood. As Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, and others have demonstrated, flowers tend to be the last refuge for the artist whose eyes and hands have both failed them. Haberle's undated Roses (above, left) was among his last works. He died in 1933 at the age of seventy-seven. The painting is a far cry from Haberle's massive (for a trompe l'oeil work) masterpiece, Grandma's Hearthstone (bottom) painted in 1890.

Grandma's Hearthstone, 1890, John Haberle. It looks as if it might also fool the nose.


No comments:

Post a Comment