While Americans did not originate the concept of illusionistic still life painting, one has to concede that it was in nineteenth century America that such painting truly came into its own. The work of William Michael Harnett* at mid century would forever define trompe l'oeil (fool the eye) painting and establish a rich tradition. He then passed it down to John Frederick Peto*, Victor Dubreuil, Claude Hirst, Alexander Pope, and into twentieth and twenty-first century painting.
What is it about trompe líoeil that continues to generate such interest? When Harnett opened his studio to enthusiastic patrons to view what he called his office boards, perhaps it was the artistic sleight of hand or optical trickery that won their minds if not their hearts. Critics even then raised questions about his art's apparent lack of any kind of moral statement in favor of mere imitation of reality. The fact that these works sustained significance through time points to Harnett as not merely a magician with a brush but a master of idea manipulation and formalist of the greatest order. Few artists understood the power of visual organization or possessed such a flair for the juxtaposition of visual fascinating objects and clippings. His choice of items chosen always possessed what he called "the rich effect that age and usage gives." Harnett's formula would of course be tempered by the hand of Peto in his application of a more poetic approach to the subject that seems to push the genre of trompe l'oeil toward a more metaphysical feel. Perhaps we find in the work of Peto a more direct line to contemporary still life painting.
Claude Raguet Hirst, one of the earliest recognized women painters, and National Academicians, like her New York City neighbor William Harnett, painted bachelor still lifes. Pipes, tobacco, well-worn books and matches were the visual subject, but her remarkable ability with the watercolor medium gave the work a unique and quiet presence.
To view contemporary trompe 'l'oeil painting as somehow being on some anachronistic tract is to miss the point of the current direction. One need only examine the work of the contemporary counterparts of Hirst, Peto and Harnett to understand that new trompe l'oeil, carrying on the tradition of the nineteenth century American masters, views the genre through the filter of the modern era. Much indeed has happened since Harnet'ís After the Hunt series. The great artist has always responded honestly to his time.
Factually, the landscape of modernism with its diverse aesthetic positions has made its impact. Because of Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp the universe of the artist is a different place. Gary Erbe, as other contemporary painters, must and does deal with the innovation and aesthetic points of view of the modern establishment. Accepting certain ideas, altering others, while rejecting some outright, Erbe has managed to present trompe l'oeil on his own terms as a twenty-first century artist. His still lifes, often autobiographical, pay homage to the technical mastery of Harnett yet often incorporate concepts of surrealistic levitation, expressionistic surface, and a warm allegiance to aspects of American Scene painting of the 1930s and the Pop of the 1960s. Visually exciting, Erbeís paintings exploit our sense of history, re-awakening the formalistic concerns of their nineteenth century counterparts while offering up fresh insights both conceptually and perceptually.
Far from being a superficial recollection of an earlier vision, the new trompe l'oeil painters remind us that significant art can indeed draw strength and inspiration from an earlier milestone. These contemporary still life painters recognize that great and enduring art is always reflective of the time in which it is created.