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The Latin term <em>memento mori</em> 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 <em>Hamlet</em>, 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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Details

  • Title: Memento Mori, "To This Favour"
  • Creator: William Michael Harnett (American, 1848–1892)
  • Date Created: 1879
  • Physical Dimensions: 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.)
  • Provenance: The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio, (Kennedy Galleries, New York, NY, sold to the Cleveland Museum of Art)1
  • Type: Painting
  • Rights: CC0
  • External Link: https://clevelandart.org/art/1965.235
  • Medium: oil on canvas
  • Inscriptions: signed lower right: WMHARNETT / 1879 [WMH in monogram].
  • Fun Fact: Harnett’s family left Ireland during the potato famine and emigrated to the United States.
  • Department: American Painting and Sculpture
  • Culture: America, 19th century
  • Credit Line: Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund
  • Collection: American - Painting
  • Accession Number: 1965.235

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