“The Art Institute was yesterday afternoon the scene of a delicate and interesting experiment, upon the result of which a personal reputation may be said to have rested and certainly upon which the merit of a work of presumptive art did depend,” the Chicago Daily News reported loquaciously on July 3, 1889. The personal reputation at stake was that of New Haven artist John Haberle. At the time, Haberle’s painting U.S.A. was hanging in the main gallery of the Art Institute of Chicago, attracting much scrutiny and speculation.

The small oil on canvas depicts several familiar objects including coins, paper currency and postage stamps, exactingly rendered in the then-fashionable trompe l’oeil (“fool the eye”) style. The bills and stamps quickly created a tempest in the Chicago art world’s teapot, with one prominent critic deeming them too realistic to have been painted and publicly denouncing the piece as a fraud. As a result, Haberle was reached in “far distant” New Haven, where he was “roused by the critical critique” and “he made a hasty journey hither.” Once Haberle arrived, the work was removed from its frame in the presence of art experts and the press who watched as “the lens was used, the paint was rubbed off, and the whole ingenious design proved really an imitative work of art, and most excellent one.” In other words, both Haberle and his painting were vindicated.

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Known for his wry sense of humor—apparent in his early self-portrait, That’s Me! (1882, pictured above)—Haberle surely felt pleased and amused on his way back to New Haven, where he’d come into this world. Born on Ashmun Street to German immigrant parents, George and Catherina, in 1856, he attended Webster School along with his older sister, Sophia. At fourteen, his father, whom he credited with recognizing his artistic inclination, apprenticed him with Punderson and Crisland, one of New Haven’s finest lithographers. During the three years he spent there, he produced his first professional work, a finely detailed pencil drawing of statuary in Evergreen Cemetery called New Haven Monuments.

Haberle then spent a year working as an engraver in Montreal, returning to New Haven in 1875 to set up his own studio on Winthrop Avenue. Soon he was doing illustrations for paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh who, at the time, was preparing to open Yale’s Peabody Museum as one of its original curators. Haberle was also enlisted by Marsh to repair fossils, arrange specimens and paint scenery for displays.

In his spare time, Haberle began the pursuit of a fine art career. His early watercolor, Yellow Canary (1883), now held at the Yale University Art Gallery, portrays a lifeless bird suspended in front of a cigar box top and evidences his budding interest in trompe l’oeil, a style the Philadelphia artist William Harnett had introduced to Americans in the previous decade. In 1883, Haberle became a founding member of the New Haven Sketch Club, where he taught regularly, and he applied for admission to the National Academy of Design in New York, which he attended the following year. By 1885, he was back in New Haven with a portfolio of paintings that employed what he then called his “imitative” technique.

His reputation quickly grew. In 1887, he submitted Imitation to the National Academy’s fall exhibition. The painting, depicting bills, coins, stamps and a tintype of Haberle, soon prompted Harnett himself to declare that “no artist has yet equaled Haberle in the imitation of bills and stamps.” Although he offered Fresh Roasted (Peanuts) that year for the Sketch Club’s December exhibition, he soon returned to depicting currency with Can You Break a Five? and Reproduction. Both include representations of newspaper clippings, one proclaiming Haberle to be a “Counter.”

By the 1890s, Haberle’s paintings were so realistic that he was admonished by federal authorities to “cease and desist” from painting American currency. He did not. In 1890, along with the nostalgic Grandma’s Hearthstone, he completed Twenty Dollar Bill, One Dollar Bill and A Deception: Ben Franklin and Five Dollars. In the latter, he chose to depict the reverse side of the bill, which, at the time, included a lengthy warning about the consequences of reproducing federal currency. A small clipping portrayed in the upper corner declares “J. Haberle—New Haven, Conn,” doubtlessly copied from his own newspaper advertisements.

The financial success Haberle’s work brought allowed him to purchase a parcel of land overlooking the harbor in Morris Cove, where he built a house and studio. He next worked on his autobiographical tour de force, A Bachelor’s Drawer, a humorous showcase of personal mementos painted between 1890 and 1894. But by 1893, his eyesight began to fail. Gradually, impressionist still lifes like Grapes on a Ledge appeared, although he produced well-received trompe l’oeil pieces including Slate and Torn in Transit as late as 1909.

At his death in 1933, Haberle was still residing in his Morris Cove house. When Sanford Law, founding director of the New Britain Museum of American Art, visited the artist’s daughter, Vera, to negotiate the purchase of Of Time and Eternity in 1951, he noticed the originals of all the press clippings Haberle had included in his work, still carefully pasted to cardboard mounts. Then, as he was leaving, Vera gave him the actual beads and pocket watch depicted in the painting. Today at the NBMAA, you can view the objects and their depiction side by side, and see for yourself how real Haberle could get.

Written by Nancy McNicol. Image, of John Haberle’s That’s Me! (1882), photographed by Spanierman Modern for a September 2020 auction. This story was originally published on June 4, 2021.

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