Aug 13, 2008

Memento Mori, "To This Favour"

Memento Mori, "To This Favour"


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

Did you know?

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


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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