Charles A. Meurer

Selected Works




Charles A. Meurer died in his Cincinnati home on the eve of his ninetieth birthday. He had lived long enough to see the art world proclaim him "the last living member of the great school of American trompe l'oeil." Indeed in the last years of the artist's life, his painting A Doughboy's Equipment achieved national acclaim as a modern descendent of William Harnett's After the Hunt (no. 53) "in military form." Surviving newspaper interviews with Meurer frequently repeat the tale of the aspiring artist's decision to become a master of trompe l'oeil after seeing Harnett's The Old Violin at the Cincinnati Industrial Exposition of 1886. In fact, it was through the sale of the Harnett  inspired still lifes he painted over the next few years that Meurer financed his European training, beginning in 1891.


The year of Harnett's death, Meurer painted My Passport(1892, location unknown), the trompe l'oeil still life which would establish his reputation. The painting won honorable mention at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and, it also drew the attention of the Secret Service. Like Harnett's notorious paintings of money, Meurer's composition, featured illusionistic images of American currency, which was considered a violation of counterfeiting laws. And, again like Harnett's, it was confiscated until Meurer returned from his studies at the Académie Julian in Paris, and agreed to paint "red lines of cancellation" across the face of his "money."

He abandoned the subject of illusionistic money only in 1909, after Congress passed a stringent law barring all facsimiles of American currency. Meurer seems to have forsaken trompe l’oeil altogether for the next twelve years, preferring to concentrate on landscape and portraiture. He returned to the genre in 1921 with the creation of two trompe l'oeil still lifes devoted to the subject of World War I, A Doughboys Equipment and Memories (United States Military Academy, West Point). A Doughboys Equipment commemorates the service of an enlisted man, while Memories, with its pistol, spurs, and officer's cap, commemorates that of an officer.

Memories, depicting a profusion of objects crowding the face of a fireplace, reflects a calculated disarray, a literal accumulation of material memories. The more simplified composition of A Doughboys Equipment, however, evokes the spit and polish of military life, with the permanence and ordered symmetry of a war memorial. Tucked among the impersonal, regulation issue objects are hints of an ordinary soldier's life: an I.D. tag, an Individual Record Book, a Croix de Guerre medal, and an open pack of Camel cigarettes. This picture clearly enshrines not military service in general but a specific historic moment, The Great War, alluded to on the meticulously painted envelope addressed to John J. Pershing and postmarked May 26, 1917, Washington D. C. The end of the war is announced by an illusionistic newspaper clipping which declares 'Armistice Signed/ Paris Nov I L"
“A Doughboy's Equipment” transcends the use of illusionism simply for its own sake; the bravura of trompe l'oeil deception, however, remains at the heart of Meurer's intention. His contemporaries marveled at his ability to "faithfully reproduce the minutest details" of each life-sized object found in his paintings, declaring that his work "cannot be equaled for realism."

Meurer has subtlety drawn on the age old tradition of vanitas in his exploration of the theme of life and death. The sightless eyes of the skull like gas mask stare out at the viewer with a disquieting assurance of the inevitable bond between war and death. The brevity of life is further alluded to in the juxtaposition of the bullet and the smoldering cigarette balanced on the bottom ledge of the door.  The finality of death is tempered, however, by the hope of immortality symbolized by the image of the Christian cross formed by the creases in the campaign hat.