U.S.A.

 
Artist
Creation date
Materials
oil on canvas
Dimensions
8-1/2 x 12 in.
Credit line
Gift of Paul and Ruth Buchanan
Accession number
2002.225
Collection
Currently On View
From the artist to Marvin Preston, Detroit, Michigan; by inheritance to his grandson, Marvin Preston. (Sally Turner Gallery, Plainfield, New Jersey). Jo Ann and Julian Ganz, Jr. in 1974. Paul and Ruth Buchanan, Indianapolis; given to the Indianapolis Museum of Art in 2002 (2002.225).
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Mistaken for Counterfeit

"John Haberle's U.S.A. caused an uproar when it was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1889. Haberle - one of the wittiest American practitioners of trompe l'oeil, or 'trick-the-eye' painting - had created an image so convincing that a newspaper critic claimed the artist had pasted real currency and stamps onto his canvas. Angered by the accusation, Haberle traveled to Chicago to prove that U.S.A. was composed entirely of oil paint. Using a magnifying glass and paint remover, experts proved that the image was an excellent example of imitative art. The artist, who had originally apprenticed as an engraver, was once investigated by the Secret Service, which alleged that he was breaking the law against counterfeiting. The investigation seems only to have goaded him to produce more and better images that mocked this rebuke. With U.S.A., Haberle was deliberately defying the government by depicting the back of a one-dollar bill with its warning against imitation of federal currency.

U.S.A. was purchased by the manager of Churchill's, one of the best saloons in Detroit, and displayed there. Trompe l'oeil, which has a long history in European art, flourished in the United States in the late 1800s. The technique was usually applied to masculine themes such as currency, smoking paraphernalia, or hunting trophies-subjects considered suitable for a man's office or saloon."

Lee, Ellen Wardwell, Anne Robinson, and Alexandra Bonfante-Warren. Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection. Indianapolis: Indianapolis Museum of Art, 2005, p. 138.

Subversion in John Haberle’s Paintings

John Haberle was one of the wittiest American painters of trompe l’oeil, or “fool the eye” still lifes. His images of money caused an uproar in his day when a newspaper critic claimed the artist had pasted real currency and stamps onto his canvas. The artist was so angered by the accusation that he traveled to Chicago to prove that his painting was composed entirely of oil paint. Using a magnifying glass and paint remover, experts proved that the questionable image was made of paint. The artist, who had originally apprenticed as an engraver, was once investigated by the Secret Service, which alleged that he was breaking the law against counterfeiting. The investigation seems only to have goaded him to produce more and better images that mocked this accusation.

U.S.A. is one of Haberle’s paintings that caused him difficulties because the image of money is so realistic that it is hard to tell whether the bill is a painted replica or actual dollar. With this painting, Haberle was deliberately defying the government by depicting the back of a one-dollar bill with the government’s own warning against imitation of federal currency. The painting was purchased by the manager of Churchill’s, one of the best saloons in Detroit, and displayed there.

Frankenstein, Alfred. After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other Still Life Painters. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1953.

Still, Gertrude Grace. John Haberle: Master of Illusion. Springfield, Massachusetts: Springfield Museum of Fine Arts, 1985.

Indianapolis Museum of Art: Highlights of the Collection (2005)

John Haberle's U.S.A. caused an uproar when it was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1889. Haberle-one of the wittiest American practitioners of trompe l'oeil, or "trick-the-eye" painting-had created an image so convincing that a newspaper critic claimed the artist had pasted real currency and stamps onto his canvas. Angered by the accusation, Haberle traveled to Chicago to prove that U.S.A. was composed entirely of oil paint. Using a magnifying glass and paint remover, experts proved that the image was an excellent example of imitative art. The artist, who had originally apprenticed as an engraver, was once investigated by the Secret Service, which alleged that he was breaking the law against counterfeiting. The investigation seems only to have goaded him to produce more and better images that mocked this rebuke. With U.S.A., Haberle was deliberately defying the government by depicting the back of a one-dollar bill with its warning against imitation of federal currency.

U.S.A. was purchased by the manager of Churchill's, one of the best saloons in Detroit, and displayed there. Trompe l'oeil, which has a long history in European art, flourished in the United States in the late 1800s. The technique was usually applied to masculine themes such as currency, smoking paraphernalia, or hunting trophies-subjects considered suitable for a man's office or saloon.

Haberle is wry and wacky, full of bravado, self-congratulatory, and has a kind of sly flamboyance.
-Art historian Alfred Frankenstein, 1948