John Haberle was a master of the trompe-l’oeil (literally, “deceive the eye”) still life, in which shadow effects, foreshortening and other techniques of perspective are used to lend realistic objects the illusion of three-dimensionality. Together with John F. Peto and William Harnett, he was one of three major American artists practicing this art form in the late 19th century.
Like many trompe l’oeils, A Bachelor’s Drawer tells a story—Haberle’s own. His portrait appears on a tintype at the bottom edge of the canvas. Simulated bank notes are accompanied by newspaper clippings mentioning the accusations of counterfeit that these generated. “A New Haven artist has plunged himself into trouble by making too perfect greenbacks in oil,” reads one. “Others have often had trouble by losing too perfect greenbacks in oil.” Meanwhile, a pamphlet on how to name a baby looms over a collection of playing cards and “girlie” photographs, where a cartoon of a dyspeptic infant imposes itself; the things of the past are being set aside as a new chapter begins.