Signed at lower left: (in envelope) “James W. Brook”
The composition of this painting is clearly derived from William Michael Harnett’s The Old Violin an astonishingly realistic, life-scale trompe l’oeil painting that created a sensation when it was exhibited at the Thirteenth Cincinnati Industrial Exposition in 1886 and at the Second Minneapolis Industrial Exposition the following year. Public fascination with the picture was purely a regional phenomenon, however, until its owner Frank Tuchfarber, published a detailed chromolithograph of the work in 1887. This reproduction became an immense success, and quickly transformed The Old Violin into a nationally known image. Alfred Frankenstein has counted thirteen “copies or paraphrases” of Tuchfarber’s chromolithograph, including works done by Jefferson Davis Chalfant and John Frederick Peto. Harnett himself returned to a variation of the theme with Still Life—Violin and Music (Music and Good Luck). In addition to admiring the image’s deceptive, imitative quality, late nineteenth-century viewers were moved by the violin’s nostalgic, sentimental associations.
James W. Brook closely adhered to Harnett’s composition, and placed the design elements such as the violin, curled sheets of music, bow, rusty door hinge, door pull, envelope, and newspaper clipping in nearly identical positions. Obviously a skilled trompe l’oeil painter, he adeptly reproduced the violin’s worn surface, the powdered rosin above its bridge, the vertical crack that runs through the door, the missing rivet on the upper door hinge, the shadows that fall across the sheet music, and even the dog-eared corners of the newspaper clipping and envelope.
Harnett inscribed his name and New York address on the envelope in the lower left of his canvas, in effect signing the painting. He further exploited this device to demonstrate his artistic skill by meticulously delineating the French postage stamp and the Paris cancellations, and by replicating the envelope’s crinkly texture. Harnett executed his painting shortly after returning to New York from Paris, so the cancellation alludes to his recent presence in that city. Brook identified himself in the same manner by giving his address as the Western Hotel in Liverpool and by referring to some connection with Perth, Scotland, through the cancellation. The July 13, 1911, cancellation mark provides a likely date for its execution, and the George V one-pence carmine stamp on the letter was issued that same year. This painting is noteworthy because it demonstrates that Tuchfarber’s chromolithograph of Harnett’s The Old Violin was known in Great Britain and that the image’s popularity transcended national boundaries.
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