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Painting of cupboard filled with books, papers, and a cast of a head

This oil painting depicts a crowded cupboard, its “wood” creating a sort of frame for the image. It is filled with a crowded jumble of objects. Books and papers are crammed in the bottom of the cabinet, along with a glass of water and a small loaf of bread on a saucer. A medal hangs over the spine of a book. Above this is a classical sculpture-style plaster head. An artist’s palette, paintbrushes, and a small painting lean against it. A curling note titled “Sheriff’s Sale: The property of an Artist” is nailed to the top left corner of the cabinet.

Gallery Text

In this humorous still life, King pokes fun at popular taste and laments the plight of the arts in America. A masterful example of trompe l’oeil illusion, the painting depicts a cupboard filled with the possessions of an ambitious and well-educated but financially unsuccessful painter. Brushes, drafting tools, treatises on art, and a cast of the head of the Apollo Belvedere, the celebrated antique sculpture, are crammed in next to stacks of unpaid bills, letters from parsimonious patrons, and a “last prize” medal. Behind the loaf of bread, a fictitious news report complete with typographical errors ridicules the unsophisticated tastes of the era, and makes clear that America was a difficult place for painters like King who wanted to emulate the arts culture of Europe in the new republic:

The exhibition of a Cats Skin in Philadelphia


totally eclipsing its rival the splendid portrait

of [Benjamin] WEST by Sir T. LAWRENCE, the

later we regret to state, did not produce enough


Identification and Creation

Object Number
Charles Bird King, American (Newport, RI 1785 - 1862 Washington, DC)
The Vanity of the Artist's Dream
Other Titles
Former Title: The Anatomy of Art Appreciation
Former Title: Poor Artist's Study
Former Title: Still Life, The Vanity of An Artist's Dream
Work Type
Creation Place: North America, United States
Persistent Link


Level 2, Room 2200, European and American Art, 17th–19th century, The Emergence of Romanticism in Early Nineteenth-Century France
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Physical Descriptions

Oil and graphite on canvas
89.2 x 74.9 cm (35 1/8 x 29 1/2 in.)
frame: 109.2 x 94.6 x 5.1 cm (43 x 37 1/4 x 2 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • Signed: l.c. on edge of book: C. B. King 1830 [For all the other inscriptions see Appendix A in American Paintings at Harvard, Volume I.]


Recorded Ownership History
James Fullerton, Boston (by 1832); Thomas R. Walker, Utica, NY; by descent to Muriel Matthews; purchased by Grenville L. Winthrop; his gift to the Fogg Art Museum, 1942.

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Grenville L. Winthrop, Class of 1886
Accession Year
Object Number
European and American Art


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Publication History

  • Edgar P. Richardson, American Romantic Painting, ed. Robert Freund, E. Weyhe (New York, NY, 1944), p. 40, no. 44, ill.
  • Wolfgang Born, "Notes on Still-Life Painting in the United States", The Magazine Antiques (New York, September 1946), Vol. L, no. 3, pp. 159-160, fig. 6
  • Wolfgang Born, Still-Life Painting in America, Oxford University Press (NY) (New York, 1947), pp. 27-28, fig. 69
  • Fogg Art Museum and Benjamin Rowland, Jr., Real and Ideal in American Art, exh. cat. (Cambridge, MA, Summer 1948), cat. 14
  • Virgil Barker, American Painting: History and Interpretation, The Macmillan Company (New York, 1950), pp. 305, 307, pl. 39
  • Edgar P. Richardson, Painting in America: The Story of 450 Years, Thomas Y. Crowell Company (New York, NY, 1956), pp. 158, fig. 72
  • Paul Zucker, Styles in Painting: A Comparative Study, Dover Publications Inc. (New York, NY, 1963), p. 274, fig. 221
  • Corcoran Gallery of Art, A Catalogue of the Collection of American Paintings in the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Volume I: Painters Born Before 1850, Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C., 1966), p. 50
  • Paintings, Drawings, and Sculpture from the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery (New Haven, 1967), n.p.
  • Harold E. Dickson, Arts of the Young Republic: The Age of William Dunlap, exh. cat., The University of North Carolina Press (Chapel Hill, NC, 1968), p. 56, fig. 116
  • Alfred V. Frankenstein, After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters 1870 - 1900, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA, 1969), p. 88
  • William Dunlap, History of the Rise and Progress of the Arts of Design in the United States, Dover Publications Inc. (New York, 1969), vol. II, p. 261, pl. 228
  • Daniel M. Mendelowitz, A History of American Art, Holt, Rinehart & Winston (New York, NY, 1970), p. 220
  • James Thomas Flexner, Nineteenth Century American Painting, Chanticleer Press (New York, NY, 1970), p. 194, ill. opp. p. 191
  • William H. Gerdts and Russell Burke, American Still Life Painting, Praeger (New York, NY, 1971), pp. 52-53
  • Kenyon Castle Bolton, III, Peter G. Huenink, Earl A. Powell III, Harry Z. Rand, and Nanette C. Sexton, American Art at Harvard, exh. cat., Fogg Art Museum (Cambridge, MA, 1972), cat. 39, ill.
  • Andrew J. Cosentino, "Charles Bird King: An Appreciation", The American Art Journal, Kennedy Galleries, Inc. (New York, May 1974), vol. VI, no. 1, pp. 54-71, pp. 58-60 and note, ill. p. 58 as fig. 6
  • Marie Louise d'Otrange Mastai, Illusion in Art: Trompe l'Oeil, Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (New York, NY, 1975), p. 275, pl. 313
  • Andrew J. Cosentino, The Paintings of Charles Bird King, 1785-1862, Smithsonian Institution for the National Collection of Fine Arts (Washington, D.C, 1977), pp. 28, 80-83, 188, cat. 501, ill. p. 81 as fig. 79
  • Kynaston McShine, ed., Joseph Cornell, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY, 1980), pp. 59-60, fig. 15
  • William H. Gerdts, Painters of the Humble Truth: Masterpieces of American Still Life 1801-1939, exh. cat., University of Missouri Press (Columbia, MO, 1981), p. 75
  • Kenneth Baker, "Things and Things to Come", The Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA, July 8, 1982), ill. p. 20
  • John Wilmerding, Important Information Inside: The Art of John F. Peto and the Idea of Still-Life Painting in Nineteenth-Century America, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art (Washington D.C., 1983), p. 131
  • Andrew J. Cosentino and Henry H. Glassie, The Capital Image: Painters in Washington DC 1800-1915, exh. cat., Smithsonian Institution Press (Washington, D.C, 1983), pl. 1
  • Chad Mandeles, "William Michael Harnett's 'The Old Cupboard Door' and the Tradition of Vanitas", American Art Journal, Kennedy Galleries, Inc. (New York, Summer 1986), Vol. XVIII, No. 3, pp. 51-62, p. 56
  • Michael David Zellman, ed., American Art Analog, Chelsea House Publishers (New York, NY, 1986), vol. 1, p. 101
  • Carrie Rebora Barratt, "Sir Thomas Lawrence's 'Benjamin West' for the American Academy of Fine Arts", The American Art Journal, Kennedy Galleries, Inc. (New York, 1989), vol. XXI, no. 3, pp. 36-38, fig. 13, fig. 14 (detail)
  • Carrie Rebora, "Sir Thomas Lawrence's 'Benjamin West' for the American Academy of the Fine Arts", American Art Journal (1989), vol 21, no. 3, pp. 18-47, pp. 36-38, fig. 13, fig. 14 (detail)
  • Doreen Bolger, Marc A. Simpson, and John Wilmerding, William M. Harnett, exh. cat., Metropolitan Museum of Art / Harry N. Abrams, Inc. (New York, NY, 1992), p. 191, note 23
  • Wayne Craven, American Art: History and Culture, Brown & Benchmark Publishers (Madison, WI, 1994), p. 156
  • Grantland S. Rice, The Transformation of Authorship in America, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL and London, England, 1997), cover page
  • Eleanor Heartney, A Capital Collection: Masterworks from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art and Third Millennium Publishing Limited (Washington, DC, 2002), p. 32
  • Stephan Wolohojian, ed., A Private Passion: 19th-Century Paintings and Drawings from the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, Harvard University, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press (U.S.) (New York, 2003), pp. 454-456, cat. 205, ill.
  • Stephan Wolohojian, Ingres, Burne-Jones, Whistler, Renoir... La Collection Grenville L. Winthrop, exh. cat., Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon and Réunion des Musées Nationaux (Paris, France, 2003), pp. 468-470, cat. 205, ill.
  • David Bjelajac, American Art: A Cultural History, Prentice Hall, Inc. (2005), pp. 186-187, fig. 5.29
  • Stephan Wolohojian and Alvin L. Clark, Jr., Harvard Art Museum/ Handbook, ed. Stephan Wolohojian, Harvard Art Museum (Cambridge, 2008), p. 149, ill.
  • Rowena Houghton Dasch, Unraveling the Deception: Trompe l'Oeil as Guide to Charles Bird King's Picture Gallery, 1824-1861, Athanor (Florida State University Department of Art History, 2008), XXVI, pp. 47-50, ill. p. 50 as fig.3
  • Laura Turner Igoe, "All Things Perish: Joseph Biays Ord and the Plight of Antebellum American Still-Life Painting, Athanor (2010), vol. XXVIII, pp. 65-73, p. 72, fig. 7
  • Sarah Cash, ed., Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945, Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC, 2011), p. 64, fig. 2
  • Theodore E. Stebbins, Jr. and Melissa Renn, American Paintings at Harvard, Volume One: Paintings, Watercolors, and Pastels by Artists Born before 1826, Yale University Press (U.S.) and Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge and New Haven, 2014), pp. 27, 328-330, cat. 292, ill, fig. 48 (detail), and Appendix A
  • Erika Schneider, The Representation of the Struggling Artist in America, 1800-1865, University of Delaware Press (Newark, DE, 2015), pp. 52, 61-68, fig. 2.7
  • Marjorie B. Cohn and Eunice Williams, "Charles Bird King, Newport Artist, and His Unexpected Fragonard", &c. [Redwood Library & Athenaeum] (Spring 2017), vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 10-13, p. 10
  • Camran Mani and Cecilia Zhou, ed., A Collection of Perspectives: Ho Family Student Guides at the Harvard Art Museums, Harvard Art Museums (Cambridge, 2023), pp. 36-37, repr. p. 36

Exhibition History

  • Annual Exhibition, Boston Athenaeum, 1832, Boston Athenaeum, Boston, 01/01/1832 - 12/31/1832
  • Real and Ideal in American Art, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 06/01/1948 - 09/01/1948
  • Paintings, Drawings, Sculpture from the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 10/12/1967 - 12/03/1967
  • American Art at Harvard, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/19/1972 - 06/18/1972
  • Master Paintings from the Fogg Collection, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/13/1977 - 08/31/1977
  • The Persistence of Memory: Continuity and Change in American Cultures, Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, 07/29/1995 - 05/13/2001
  • A Private Passion: 19th-Century Paintings and Drawings from the Grenville L. Winthrop Collection, Harvard University, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 10/23/2003 - 01/25/2004
  • For Students of Art and Lovers of Beauty: Highlights from the Collection of Grenville L. Winthrop, Harvard University Art Museums, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, 04/16/2004
  • Re-View: S424-426 Western Art from 1560 to 1900, Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 08/16/2008 - 06/18/2011
  • Ancient to Modern, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 01/31/2012 - 06/01/2013
  • 32Q: 2200 19th Century, Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, 11/16/2014 - 01/01/2050

Subjects and Contexts

  • Google Art Project

Verification Level

This record has been reviewed by the curatorial staff but may be incomplete. Our records are frequently revised and enhanced. For more information please contact the Division of European and American Art at