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Memento Mori, "To This Favour"

Memento Mori, "To This Favour"

1879

William Michael Harnett

(American, 1848-1892)

Oil on canvas

Framed: 77.9 x 98.4 x 8.6 cm (30 11/16 x 38 3/4 x 3 3/8 in.); Unframed: 61.3 x 81.5 cm (24 1/8 x 32 1/16 in.)

Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1965.235

Fun Fact

Harnett’s family left Ireland during the potato famine and emigrated to the United States.

Description

The Latin term memento mori describes a traditional subject in art that addresses mortality. In Harnett’s example, the extinguished candle, spent hourglass, and skull symbolize death. A quote from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, inscribed on the inside cover of a tattered book, reinforces the theme. It comes from the play’s famed graveyard scene where Hamlet discovers a skull and grimly ponders his beloved Ophelia, ironically unaware that she is already dead. The "paint" in the quote not only refers to Ophelia’s makeup, but also wittily evokes the artifice of Harnett’s picture.

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