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Trompe l’oeil art on display

By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.

In November, my wife and I took a little trip into northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. In Arkansas, we went to Bentonville to visit the Crystal Bridges Museum, which one of my wife’s friends had recommended. Founded by Alice Walton, the daughter and one of the heirs of Walmart creator Sam Walton, Crystal Bridges Museum is a museum of American art.


The museum opened its doors on Nov. 11, 2011 [November is the 11th month]. Before leaving the museum, we ate dinner at the museum’s restaurant, 11. If you’re interested, the museum offers free admission, complete with headphones supplying interesting information about the artwork.

The museum has many pieces of art that I found fascinating, including a piece titled “Bad Lawn,” that looks exactly like its title. This is not a painting but rather what appears to be a small section of a lawn, complete with dying grass and thriving weeds. Another interesting piece is the figure of a life-size man, resting on a bench. Yet another piece of art depicts a chimpanzee contemplating an ape skull. In his right hand, he holds a well-worn copy of Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man.


The art that I found most striking, however, consisted of two paintings, one by John Haberle and the other by Victor Dubreuil. You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of these artists, as I had never heard of them either. Haberle lived from 1856 to 1933 and has been called an “American Master of Money Paintings.” Little is known about Dubreuil other than that he seemed to be obsessed with money in his paintings.

Both men were painters in the trompe l’oeil style. Trompe l’oeil is French for “fool the eye.” Paintings in this style aim to deceive the viewer, to depict items with such realism that the viewer will perceive them as real. Haberle painted in this style until 1893, when failing eyesight prevented him from performing the precise work necessary to create his “illusions.”

Haberle first encountered trompe l’oeil painting in 1884, when he took some classes at New York City’s National Academy of Design. As a painter in this style, Haberle was one of a number of artists working in America at about the same time. Two others were William Harnett and John F. Peto. Comparing the three men, art historian Alfred Frankenstein wrote:

“Peto is moved by the pathos of used-up things. Haberle is wry and wacky, full of bravado, self-congratulating virtuosity, and sly flamboyance. He works largely within an old tradition, that of the trompe l’oeil still life in painted line.… It is poles away from Harnett’s sumptuosity [having a quality of lavishness], careful balances and well-modeled volumes, and is equally far from Peto’s sensitivity in matters of tone and hue.”

Frankenstein also pronounced Haberle the “greatest American master of the [trompe l’oeil] tradition.” About Dubreuil he wrote: “He was obsessed with money, doubtless, because he never had any.”

Painted by Haberle in 1887, “Small Change” is an oil on canvas still life depicting four pieces of money: the reverse of a well-worn 1787 Colonial piece, two pieces of Fractional Currency, and the reverse of a silver three-cent piece. The top piece of currency is a 10 cent shinplaster with the head of William Meredith. Meredith was the Treasury secretary during the brief term of Zachary Taylor (March 1849 to July 1860). The bottom bill is a 25-cent piece with George Washington’s head on it. Although the 10-cent bill is well worn, it is basically intact.


By contrast, the 25-cent note is worn out, with a missing segment extending into Washington’s portrait. This gap appears to be crudely filled with a postage stamp, the back of which is visible.

At the very bottom of the painting, ostensibly stuck into the frame, is the silver three-cent piece. It’s next to what appears to be a tiny photo of a bearded gentleman. According to the museum’s write-up for the painting, this “…is a self-portrait which Haberle likely included to defy these authorities [U.S. Secret Service] and express pride in his work. He also included humorous personal references such as the signature with stick figure that seems to be carved into the surface.” This is located in the upper right corner of the painting. Printing above and to the right of the stick figure reads, “J. Haberle 1887 New Haven CT.”

Painted in 1896, when the artist was 16, Dubreuil’s painting is titled “The Cross of Gold.” On it, what appear to be five well-worn pieces of paper money are arranged in the form of a simple cross. The denominations are $1, $2, $5, $10, and $20. According to one write-up I found online, “Walmart cash has bought the painted cash you see here.” This refers, of course, to the purchase of the painting for the Crystal Bridges collection.


I also found reference to Dubreuil’s painting in a 1988 piece from The New York Times. “A classic of the money-painting genre, and a star item in the show, is a painting from 1896 entitled ‘The Cross of Gold,’ by Victor Dubreuil, the same artist who rendered barrels stuffed with bills. Titled after William Jennings Bryan’s famous populist speech, it depicts a half-dozen [I counted only five] silver certificates[,] the currency favored by Western and Southern states but for many years opposed by Northeastern establishment bankers[,] in the form of a cross that is pinned to the wall with four shiny golden nails.”

The Times article also mentioned recently deceased Stephen Boggs, a present-day trompe l’oeil painter of money. Boggs used his realistic paintings to barter for food, clothing, and other things he needed. Like his 19th-century predecessors, Boggs frequently run afoul of the U.S. Secret Service on the issue of counterfeiting.

If you’re ever in the vicinity of Bentonville, Ark., by all means pay a visit to the Crystal Bridges Museum. It’s a treasure house of American art and the repository of several paintings and sculptures in the trompe l’oeil tradition.

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.

More Collecting Resources

• The Standard Catalog of United States Paper Money is the only annual guide that provides complete coverage of U.S. currency with today’s market prices.

• Order the Standard Catalog of World Paper Money, General Issues to learn about circulating paper money from 14th century China to the mid 20th century.