In the late nineteenth century, William Michael Harnett was America’s greatest master of "trompe-l’oeil," French for “fool the eye.” In effective trompe-l’oeil painting, an art form that originated in the ancient world, objects are portrayed with startling illusionism. Harnett painted "The Last Rose of Summer" in 1886, shortly after his return from four years in Europe, which he spent principally in Munich. There he shunned the loose, expressive brushwork preferred by his compatriots and their patrons in favor of tightly controlled paint handling that left his touch nowhere in evidence. Although most art connoisseurs of the time did not appreciate Harnett’s pristine works, American businessmen relished them, and commissioned Harnett to paint the material evidence of their masculine habits and pursuits.
We are not certain who, if anyone, commissioned "The Last Rose of Summer." Many of the objects in the picture, including Harnett’s own flute, also appear in other compositions. In this work, the playfulness of the illusion is tempered by a sense of melancholy and loss. The title of the song on the sheet music—an actual tune on which the painting’s title is based—the water-stained paper, the old books including Dante’s "Divine Comedy," the melted candle and the snuffer, and the precarious way the objects lean on each other suggest, in combination, a meditation on the passage of time. As with the seventeenth-century Dutch artists to whom he was indebted, Harnett’s concern for symbolic content and the pictorial qualities of composition, light, and color equaled his desire to amaze viewers with his virtuosity as an imitator of appearances.