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A Royal Dessert

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A Royal Dessert

oil on canvas
23 3/8 in. x 19 3/8 in. (59.37 cm x 49.21 cm)
Gift of Virginia C. Baker and Museum Purchase: Henry Melville Fuller Fund, 2005.22

William Michael Harnett



A table, set in a shallow space against a wood-paneled wall, displays still-life objects to the viewer. The richly patterned draperies on the wall and tabletop add color and texture to the arrangement of fruit, books, wine, and cigars. A finely etched glass decanter reflects the windowpane, its ruby contents casting a red glow, and displays Harnett’s technical virtuosity. A bronze plate decorated with classical figures stands behind several books, while a section of the Philadelphia Ledger Supplement newspaper drapes over the front of the table, the title fooling the reader into thinking that the text is also legible. Harnett frequently included cigars in his compositions. In this picture the newspaper, the well-worn cigar box, and the plate of fruit are precariously placed near the edge of the table, with fruit spilled onto the newspaper. This touch of disorder suggests that these objects have been hastily set down by an owner who has recently left the room, leaving his cigar still smoking.

Context and Analysis

Irish American artist William Harnett was born in Ireland in 1848 and raised in Philadelphia. As a young man in 1881, the year this picture was painted, he was in Munich as part of a six-year European trip. He funded his trip by sending paintings back to America for exhibition and sale. This painting was no exception: in October and November 1883, it was offered at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts “Fourth Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Art.”

Harnett is one of America’s best-known still-life painters. In this picture he adapts still-life conventions of the 1600s to his own day, by including objects that would have meaning for the viewers and patrons of his pictures. Harnett’s tabletop still-lifes often include a folded newspaper. In some cases the newspaper indicates the patron’s business interests or hometown. 1 Harnett’s decision to include the Philadelphia Ledger, rather than one of the European newspapers easily available in Munich, is consistent with his intention to send the picture back to America for an audience who would recognize Philadelphia’s prominent paper. Harnett typically did paint objects from life, however, and the cigar box is typical of European cigar boxes. 2

Harnett includes similar objects and textiles in other paintings, but this picture is somewhat unusual in the number of historic and decorative items portrayed, such as the ornate draperies, etched-glass decanter, wood paneling, and plate with classical motif. The work’s title, A Royal Dessert, alludes to this richness with the word royal, a term presumably also meant to indicate a rich after-dinner treat of port and cigars. In addition, the newspaper is the daily Philadelphia paper’s Saturday supplement, which featured classified ads, local news, and letters to the editor—itself an addition or “dessert” after the regular news.


For more than sixty years this painting was in the private collection of Virginia Crocker Baker of Peterborough, New Hampshire, who had received it as a wedding present from her husband’s grandmother in Philadelphia. In 2005 the Currier acquired the painting, and it fills an important place in the museum’s American painting collection. The picture fits into the art-historical narrative of still-life painting, represented in the Currier’s collection by the early Dutch Still Life of Fruit on a Kraak Porcelain Dish by Balthasar van der Ast (1617; Currier 2004.15 ), and by the works of American painters, such as Severin Roesen, Floral Still Life (about 1860; Currier, 2002.9), who had been influenced by the Dutch tradition. Modern artists continued to build upon the tradition, including James Aponovich in Still Life with Chocolates (1984; Currier, 1985.2) and Jane Freilicher in Sundown (1988;Currier, 1996.6).

Written by Melissa Geisler Trafton

1Laura A. Coyle, “‘The Best Index of American Life’: Newspapers in the Artist’s Work,” in Bolger, Simpson, and Wilmerding 1992, 223–31.
2According to cigar expert Tony Hyman, the style of the box lid and the placement of the count of cigars (50) reveal this to be a European box. “Colorado maduro” means that the cigars were a medium-dark, red-brown color; “Flor” (on the right end panel) indicates that they were top quality. Personal communication, June 20, 2013.


Bolger, Doreen, Marc Simpson, and John Wilmerding, eds., with Thayer Tolles Mickel. William Harnett. Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum, 1992.

Frankenstein, Alfred. After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters 1870–1900. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969.

1883 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, "Fourth Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Art." Oct. 16 - Nov. 27, cat. no. 125.

2010-2011 Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, NH, "The Secret Life of Art: Mysteries of the Museum Revealed." Oct. 2, 2010 – Jan. 9, 2011.

Gift to Virginia C. Baker, from her husband’s grandmother
Partial gift and purchase, Currier Museum of Art, 2005

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