Editor's note: The following article was reprinted in Resource Library on July 29, 2009 by permission of the author and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Indianapolis Museum of Art directly through this phone number or Web address::


John Haberle: Museum Accession

by Harriet G. Warkel


John Haberle's sense of humor and self-congratulatory style sets him apart from his fellow still-life painters, William Harnett and John Peto, who took a more serious approach to their subject matter. All three artists painted trompe l'oeil paintings, works of art that were meant to fool the viewer into thinking the objects represented were real. Included among their still-life paintings were those depicting United States currency. This theme became very popular with their male clients, especially those who owned saloons. Harnett produced his first currency painting in 1877, making him the earliest American artist to concentrate on this topic. When his works were publicly displayed in a New York saloon in 1886, the local Secret Service issued a cease and desist order to both the owner of the saloon for showing the painting and to Harnett for producing it, on the grounds that such work violated the laws against counterfeiting. Harnett's response to the Secret Service was to do just as they said: stop painting currency.[1]

Born in 1856 in New Haven, Connecticut, John Haberle was fourteen when he apprenticed with an engraving and lithographic firm for six years. In the early 1880s he was employed as an exhibitions preparator for a paleontologist. His only formal art training came in 1884 when he enrolled for one year at the National Academy of Design. Haberle first began incorporating trompe l'oeil elements in his paintings in 1882. Haberle must have found Harnett's fate to be a challenge rather than a deterrent, because he exhibited his first money painting, Imitation, in 1887 at the National Academy of Design, a year after Harnett received his official reprimand. Its purchase by the noted art collector Thomas Clarke encouraged the artist to continue using currency themes in his work.[2] Haberle produced his second painting on this topic, Reproduction, the same year and exhibited it at The Art Institute of Chicago.

It was, however, U.S.A., the painting the Indianapolis Museum of Art acquired this year, that caused the uproar which would seal the artist's reputation as the most meticulous painter of money. The painting shows a one-dollar bill on top of a tattered ten-dollar note, a one-cent stamp, a piece of tape, and a newspaper clipping. U.S.A. was exhibited at The Art Institute of Chicago in 1889. Haberle appears to have chosen the Art Institute for the display of his currency paintings because the Secret Service did not find the museum of particular interest in their hunt for potential counterfeiters.[3] Although U.S.A. did not cause problems with the Secret Service, a Chicago Inter-Ocean critic accused Haberle of perpetuating a fraud.[4] Haberle heard about this accusation and took the train to Chicago to confront the writer. The Chicago Daily News, a rival paper to the Inter-Ocean, reported that experts had examined the painting in the presence of the artist and the critic who made the allegation. According to the Daily News, "...the whole ingenious design proved to be a work of imitative art."[5] The original critic had no choice but to recant his statement and did so four days later.

U.S.A. is a ironic and comedic tour de force. Haberle antagonizes the government by including the one-dollar bill's reverse side containing the full text of the official warning against the imitation of Federal currency.

Haberle uses U.S.A. as an opportunity to extol his earlier work by including the painted newspaper clipping containing a few lines of praise of Imitation. In U.S.A. everything is meant to fool the eye into thinking the painted objects are real. Haberle even built up the newspaper clipping to make look like it had been pasted on to a wood grained panel, which is also a painted illusion. The painting is signed J. Haberle in the upper right corner with a happy face. It is signed again in the newspaper clipping which mentions the artist's name. U.S.A. is mounted in a deep shadow box style frame; one final trompe l'oeil feature is the frame's metal nameplate on which Haberle painted his name so it looks like it was engraved.

U.S.A. was purchased from the artist by Marvin Preston, manager of Churchill's Saloon in Detroit, Michigan, where it was placed on display. Churchill's saloon was one of the best in Detroit. It had a back room that was usually occupied by lawyers, businessmen and artists. Such saloons and bars were a part of the social life of the period and were strictly male places of congregation. Most trompe l'oeil paintings revolved around masculine themes, including currency, smoking paraphernalia and hunting trophies that were suitable for a man's office or a saloon.[6]

Haberle died in Morris Cove, a suburb of New Haven, Connecticut, in 1933. Thirty years later, when Alfred Frankentein was conducting research for his book on still-life painters, he interviewed Haberle's daughter, who was living in her father's house. Frankenstein found that the originals of the clippings in every known painting by Haberle were carefully pasted to cardboard mounts. All were in praise of the artist.[7] Haberle was not humble or shy about his success or afraid of its consequences. When he received a warning from the United States Treasury to stop painting currency, Haberle just painted more detailed and precise images of money. He flaunted his skill and dared anyone to stop him. His career as a trompe l'oeil painter was finally curtailed, not by the Secret Service, but because he began having trouble with his eyes in the mid-1890s, which made such detailed painting almost impossible. Haberle's career as a painter of currency lasted only about four years. During that time he created some of the most convincing trompe l'oeil images of money in American art.


1 Bruce W. Chambers, Old Money: American Trompe L'oeil Images of Currency, (New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, Inc., 1988), pp. 13, 21, 24.

2 Gertrude Grace Sill, John Haberle: Master of Illusion, (Springfield, Massachusetts: Springfield Library and Museum Association, 1985), p. 8.

3 Alfred Frankestein, After the Hunt, (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1969), p. 117.

4 Jane Marlin, "John Haberle A Remarkable Contemporaneious Painter in Detail," The Illustrated American, (December 30, 1898), p. 516.

5 Frankenstein, After the Hunt, p. 117.

6 Albert E. Apel, "Out of My Attic: Unreliable Impressions of Detroit Through 72 Years," (unpublished and undated manuscript).

7 Frankenstein, After the Hunt, p. 116.

About the Author

Harriet G. Warkel, curator of American art at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, earned her master's degree in art history from Indiana University. She has curated numerous exhibitions for the Indianapolis Museum of Art, including Edward Hopper: Paper to Paint and A Shared Heritage: Art by Four African Americans for which she wrote the accompany catalogues. She has also written numerous articles for American Art Review.


Resource Library editor's note

The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on July 29, 2009, with permission of the author and the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on June 10, 2009.

This article appeared in the September - October 2003 issue of American Art Review.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to the author and Shana Herb Johannessen for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.


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