PORTLAND, Maine — In 1910, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso began introducing snippets of newspaper text and diagrammatic illustrations into their paintings. Those Cubist paintings, inspired by Cezanne, were otherwise veering closer and closer to abstraction. The following year, they upped the ante by introducing elements of collage and “trompe l’oeil” — painting so convincingly illusionistic that the depicted object appears three-dimensional.
Picasso and Braque were deliberately sowing confusion between codes of representation, so that a viewer would remain unsure as to whether an element in the painting was an actual object (an oil cloth, stamp, or newspaper clipping), a trompe l’oeil painting of an object (for instance, a piece of timber), a pictorial sign (for, say, a key), a linguistic sign (the letters JOU, for journal) or an image so abstracted it failed to represent anything.
Everything, they seemed to be insisting — even an object — was a sign, and its meaning could shift according to the context created by the signs around it.
A quarter century earlier, the American artist John Haberle, a son of German immigrants, created comparable confusions. His style, however, was uniformly illusionistic and executed entirely in paint.
Haberle was born in New Haven and died there. His approach, which played with many of the same ingredients as Picasso and Braque, was less radical than theirs, but the confusions he created were in many ways more real.
When this painting, called “Reproduction” (on show alongside a number of other trompe l’oeil paintings at the Portland Museum of Art), was offered for sale to a Mr. Wade of Cleveland, Haberle was obliged to guarantee its authenticity.
“This picture was painted entirely with the brush in oil colors — with the naked eye — without any photographic aid as many may think,” he wrote. “This I will cheerfully sign and take oath to the same before a commissioner of the Superior Court of Cleveland, O.”
It was the late 19th century, an era of con men, séances, and circus freaks. The upheavals of industrialization and the consequent sliding about of social status had heightened public sensitivity to frauds and deceptions. P.T. Barnum, the circus impresario, was just one of many who read the mood of mass credulity, and rose magnificently to the occasion.
Counterfeit money was a particular concern. In 1877, the Irish-born painter William Harnett had painted “Still Life — Five-Dollar Bill.” The tattered note looked so real that in 1886, New York policemen seized it from the saloon where it hung and demanded Harnett turn in any similar paintings.
A judge declared that “the development and exercise of a talent so capable of mischief should not be encouraged,” and Harnett never painted money again.
Undeterred — nay, stimulated to action — by the Harnett affair, Haberle painted this battered 10-silver-dollar paper certificate of deposit, issued by the US Treasury, in its immediate aftermath (he probably finished it in 1888). Anticipating Picasso and Braque, his picture also includes a postage stamp, newspaper clippings — one with an illustration — and a tintype photograph.
The text in the newspaper clippings is clearly legible. In a spirit closely akin to Picasso’s mischievous clue-planting, it contains fragments such as “done entirely with a brush,” “John Haberle the counter[feiter],” and “A… that would humbug Barnum.”
According to Thomas B. Clarke, who bought the work from Haberle, Harnett himself had seen the picture, which is titled “Reproduction.” He “said that he had never seen such reproduction anywhere” — a compliment not exactly free of its own confusions.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.