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William Michael Harnett, Still Life with Bric-a-Brac (1878)

For Artwork in Focus we explore individual artworks, critiquing their style and discussing their socio-political context. Today we look at Still Life with Bric-a-Brac (1878), by William Michael Harnett.

About the Work

Title : Still Life with Bric-a-Brac 
Artist : William Michael Harnett
Year : 1878
Medium : Oil on Canvas
Dimensions : 81.3 x 108.6 cm (32 x 42 3/4 in.)
Location : Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Exotica : The Commodification of Eastern Cultures

Harnett’s painting is based on the objects belonging to the collection of  William Hazleton Folwell. Folwell was a businessman based out of Philadephia, who commissioned Harnett to make this work.

According to the Harvard Art Museums’ digital catalogue :

“Comprising genuine antiques, contemporary ceramics, and modern replicas, Folwell’s collection reflects the eclecticism of Victorian taste and the influence of the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition held in 1876. This international fair introduced Americans to objects from around the world and sparked widespread interest in collecting exotica.”

The word ‘exotica’ in art is generally used to describe objects that are not indigenous to Western civilization; they come instead from the East.

During the colonial era, objects that were traditionally used in religious and ritualistic practises in the Middle East and India became of interest to the Western eye. These objects were very commonplace in the cultures they originated from, but to the colonisers, they came to be recognised as mystical things. And so started the trade in exotic objects. The colonisers either stole or  bought these objects – including one’s seen in Harnett’s painting – to add to their personal collection.

From swords belonging to the Maharajas of India, to incense holders used in Arab countries, the Western eye wanted it all. Through this process of plundering and acquisition, the objects went from being utilitarian to being rendered as collectibles. One may argue that such a trend helped spread the influence of Eastern art in the West. However, the Eurocentric art historical cannon never truly recognised these objects as art. Instead, they were just exotica looted from the past.

Other Details

William Michael Harnett’s Still Life with Bric-a-Brac is housed in the Harvard Art Museums’ collection Room 2120 of European and American Art, 17th–19th century. It is part of the museum’s The Lure of the East collection.


To learn more about iconic artworks and their socio-political context, visit Artwork in Focus.

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