Jefferson David Chalfant (1856–1931)
The Old Almanac, 1886
Oil on canvas, 17 ½ x 25 5/8 in.
Framed dimensions: 27 ¼ x 35 ¼ in.
Signed and dated lower left: J. D. Chalfant 1886
Provenance: Mrs. John B. Derrickson, Newark, Delaware, by 1959; Mr. and Mrs. A. William Boyle, York, Pennsylvania, 1983; H. Brooks, Harrisonburg, Virginia; Richard Manoogian, Grosse Point, Michigan, 1989; Masco Corporation, 1992-2016
Exhibited: C. D. Rudolph. Jeweler, 231 Market Street, Wilmington, Delaware, November 1886; Wilmington Society of the Fine Arts, Jefferson D. Chalfant 1856-1931, January 8 – February 1, 1959, no. 2; Berry-Hill Galleries, New York, Virtual Reality: American Trompe l’Oeil Paintings, May – June 1994
Literature: Jefferson David Chalfant Papers, Archives of American Art, microfilm roll 2427, frames 99, 104, 111, 594; William H. Gerdts, “A Trio of Violins,” The Art Quarterly, vol. 22, Winter 1959, 377.
The life and art of Jefferson David Chalfant are well presented in the essay by Jane D. Gorman in the catalogue, Jefferson David Chalfant (1856-1931) for the show held at the Brandywine River Museum, Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, June 2 – September 3, 1979. Born in Sadsbury Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, Chalfant moved with his family in 1861 to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and followed his father’s trade as a cabinetmaker. By the 1880s, Chalfant was living in Wilmington, Delaware, which would remain his home for the rest of his life. By 1883 Chalfant opened a studio as an artist, and he appears to have begun his artistic career as a landscape painter before switching to still-life painting by 1885. Chalfant is best known for his trompe l’oeil paintings, inspired by the work of William Michael Harnett (1848–1892). Harnett’s return to New York City in 1886, after six years of studying abroad in Munich, brought attention to trompe l’oeil effects.
Harnett’s immense impact on Chalfant can be seen in Chalfant’s Gunner’s Outfit and Game, 1886 (location unknown) and After the Hunt, 1888 (location unknown, though documented in photographs) which takes the title from Harnett’s famous work. Among Chalfant’s other quite marvelous still lifes are four of violins, again based on Harnett’s The Old Violin, now in the National Gallery in Washington. Chalfant also painted at least one currency painting in imitation of Harnett’s pictures of paper bills. Chalfant’s several paintings of postage stamps, where he paired the real items with the paintings, shows his own individual adaptation of the style. A Wilmington newspaper of January 5, 1885, noted that “Mr. Chalfant is a student in that school of art of which Harnet [sic] is a recognized master.”
The still-life period of Chalfant’s life ended when Alfred Corning Clark, a great New York collector, sponsored his travel abroad to study in Paris at the Académie Julian in 1890. His studies focused on the human figure, and after he returned from over a year and half in Paris, he became the master of genre paintings, often depicting children, elderly artisans at work, and male figures in historical costumes.
He returned to trompe l’oeil still life only once, in 1898, with The Old Flintlock (formerly, Ganz collection), inspired by Harnett’s The Faithful Colt, now in the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford. During the first decade of the twentieth century Chalfant focused on portraiture.
The Old Almanac is Chalfant’s earliest located painting, though Gunner’s Outfit and Game, also of 1886, likely preceded it. Gunner’s Outfit and Game is documented to have been completed in early February of 1886, and The Old Almanac was only exhibited in the Wilmington jewelry store of C.D. Rudolph (which was a showplace for Chalfant’s art on several occasions) in November 1886. This painting is unlike any known work by Harnett and any other work by Chalfant himself. Since the picture seems unlike any other American example of still life, Chalfant may likely have been inspired by Old Master European examples.
The Old Almanac displays aspects of trompe l’oeil, especially in the folding of torn pages next to the almanac and the puckered cloth underneath the arrangement on the table. The one identifiable book in this scene is Uncle Sam’s Large Almanac for 1842 (Uncle Sam’s Old Almanacs were published in Philadelphia by William W. Walker). Also included are a candle, which stands up in the center, its glowing metal stand beautifully contrasting with the texture of paper and cloth, and a candle snuffer and a snuff box at the right, resting upon a book. The painting as a whole suggests that it is not only a fascinating arrangement of objects of different form, texture, and date of origin, but also that this is perhaps a specific memorial. The picture may well be a reference to a life “snuffed out” with the candle now unlit and a reference back to the year 1842—perhaps to the year of birth of a deceased friend or relative, or to a figure of note, presumably male, given the snuff box. In any case, this would not reference Chalfant’s parents or his two sisters who lived beyond 1886. This premise in still-life painting, a “memento mori,” was especially popular in The Netherlands during the seventeenth century, though Dutch pictures of this theme usually display a greater variety of objects and are more colorful. The dark tones and lack of color here especially underscore the mournful but evocative pictorial projection of Uncle Sam’s Large Almanac for 1842.
William H. Gerdts, New York, N.Y. 2016