The Slate

about 1895
John Haberle (American, 1856–1933)


30.48 x 23.81 cm (12 x 9 3/8 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Oil on canvas

On View

Forkner and Gill Family Gallery (Gallery 238)





This canvas is one of three paintings in which Haberle depicted a blackboard covered with various chalk-drawn scrawls, scratches, and doodles. [1] The words “Leave Your Order Here” indicate that the slate was modeled on those commonly used in grocery stores, though it bears an eclectic array of images and words. [2]Beneath the stenciled message are images of a tic-tac-toe game, a stick figure, and a cat, as well as some words and phrases handwritten in chalk: “but the cat can,” followed by “Painting/ ‘A Bachelor’s Drawer’/ is FOR RENT/ Inquire of/ John Haberle/ Studio/ New Haven/ Ct.”

Haberle lived most of his life in New Haven, Connecticut, where at age fourteen he was apprenticed to a lithographer. After practicing that trade in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and in Providence, Rhode Island, he returned to New Haven in 1880 to work as an illustrator and preparator at the Peabody Museum at Yale University. In 1887, he studied at the National Academy of Design in New York and began painting trompe l’oeil (fool the eye) still lifes featuring images of dollar bills, postage stamps, photographs of pin-up girls, torn packages, playing cards, tickets, and other bits of ephemera so realistically rendered that at first glance they appear to be real. What exactly drew Haberle to trompe l’oeil is not known, though the style of painting clearly required the same kind of meticulous attention to detail as the scientific drawings by which he earned his living. Haberle painted few trompe l’oeil still lifes after the mid-1890s when his failing eyesight made the exacting work almost impossible. [3]

Late-nineteenth-century trompe l’oeil still lifes, now viewed as important examples of American realism, were little valued in their own day when the institutions that shaped aesthetic practice favored more painterly, suggestive styles derived from Impressionism.[4] By contrast, trompe l’oeil still lifes found their audience among viewers who enjoyed the technical wizardry of the works. [5]While trompe l’oeil still lifes occasionally hung in some of the officially sanctioned exhibitions, like those of the National Academy of Design, they more often appeared on the walls of well-traveled business establishments―restaurants, saloons, shops, and the like. Frederick McGrath, for example, showed his collection of Haberle paintings in the Boston liquor store Conway and Co.[6]

The Slate, however, is more than a technical tour de force. As if anticipating twentieth-century surrealist René Magritte’s intellectual peregrinations in This Is Not a Pipe (1926, private collection) or Two Mysteries (1966, private collection), its collection of words and drawings explore the distance between the representation of an object and the object itself. At first, The Slate appears to claim that representation is an unproblematic exercise, that a one-to-one correspondence between an image and a thing can be established. Yet Haberle simultaneously asserts and denies that proposal. The drawings of the stick figure and the cat, composed of the most abbreviated and simple forms, only approximate their models and can never be confused with them as the blackboard might be.

Greater distance occurs between Haberle’s painted words and the things and ideas to which they refer. Beneath the drawing of the grinning feline is the spectrally rendered phrase, “but the cat can.” That phrase probably alludes to an article entitled “Fooled the Cat,” which Haberle had rendered (along with another clipping, “A Newspaper Critic Pronounces a Picture a Fraud, but Retracts”) in his best-known painting A Bachelor’s Drawer (1890–94, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Those articles referred to the success of Haberle’s pictorial deceptions, yet no cat would be fooled by Haberle’s drawing in The Slate nor would it understand any relation between itself and the word cat. And what, if anything, could this particular chalk-drawn cat do? What is the relation between the name “John Haberle” left in large script on the slate to some actual person, and does that Haberle differ from the one who has etched his name in crude block letters in the illusionistic wooden frame? Representations are also evanescent and contingent, as the juxtaposition of “painting” and “for rent” indicates. With the stroke of an eraser, the present images will vanish and a new tenant will take possession of the space.

The Slate appears to be a real slate, but it is not. The cat and stick figure only resemble the things to which they refer, and the words only indicate objects, individuals, and ideas. You might “leave your order here” as the message directs, but will the words and images communicate your desires and intentions? In the end, the only truthful or certain image on this blackboard is the tic-tac-toe game because it is not based on anything outside itself. It is what it is.

1. The two related pictures are also entitled The Slate (private collection and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). See Gertrude Grace Sill, John Haberle: Master of Illusion (Springfield, Mass.: Museum of Fine Arts, 1985), figs. 18 and 27, respectively.
2. Sill, John Haberle, 50.
3. Ibid.
4. See Elizabeth Johns, “Harnett Enters Art History,” in William M. Harnett, ed. Doreen Bolger, Marc Simpson, and John Wilmerding, exh. cat. (New York: Amon Carter Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Harry N. Abrams, 1992), 107.
5. For a good discussion of the class of the audience for such pictures and their high illusionism, see Paul J. Staiti, “Illusionism, Trompe l’Oeil, and the Perils of Viewership,” in Bolger, Simpson, and Wilmerding, eds., William M. Harnett, 31–47.
6. See Alfred Frankenstein, After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870–1900 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953), 120.

This text was adapted from Karyn Esielonis, Still-Life Painting in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, exh. cat. (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1994).


Upper left: HABERLE


The artist; to Gus Sattig (friend of the artist); purchased at Sattig estate sale by A. Lee and E. Montgomery, Cheshire, Conn.; to Mrs. Avis Gardiner, Stamford, Conn., by 1965; with Kennedy Galleries, New York, 1968; to O. Kelly Anderson, Jr., New York, 1968; to MFA, 1984, purchase.

Credit Line

Henry H. and Zoe Oliver Sherman Fund