Trompe l'oeil prints

The Old Violin. Chromolithograph printed by Frank Tuchfarber (fl. 1870-1890) after the painting by William Michael Harnett (1848-1892). Published by Donaldson Art and Sign Company, Kentucky, 1887. Graphic Arts division GA2008- in process

One of the highlights of Cincinnati’s thirteenth annual Industrial Exposition in 1886 was the trompe l’oeil painting by the American artist William Harnett called The Old Violin. Publisher Frank Tuchfarber, who specialized in art reproductions, bought the painting both for his love of music and his interest in selling a commercial reproduction of the painting.

The resulting chromolithograph was printed in seventeen colors, each from a separate stone. The thickness of the inks, along with the varnish, gives the impression (if not the exact look) of an oil painting. Two versions exist; one published in Cincinnati and one in Covington, Kentucky under the Donaldson Art Sign Company (also known as Donaldson Lithographing Company). Although neither was issued with a printed date, Princeton’s copy is a printer’s proof and so probably from around 1887. The sheet is not trimmed to the image but retains its margins, with their registration crosses, color keys and ink bleeds.

The popularity of this print and the question of the artistic achievement in making the chromolithographic reproduction led to a court battle over the copyright for the print. To read more about this, see


there is only one version of the old violin.the first production run was done by Wm. M Donaldson, Donaldson Lithographing in cincinnati,Ohio. After that business was sold Wm M (my Great Grandfather) built The Donaldson Art Sign Co in Covington Ky, accross the river from Cincinnati. The same stones were used for all production runs. All prints were dated 1887 for Copyright. THe first run was marked Donaldson Lithographing. Later runs said Donaldson Art Sign. great grandfather received title to the work in partial payment of a large and growing debt. the piece above is not an artists proof.all sheets were shipped with full margin(including color bars and registration) the prints are actually water transfer decals. The top(second)coat of varnish is a water based glue and the un printed sheets were coated with water based varnish and adhesive. the prints were placed in a waterbath and applied to a clean sheet of glass. then the paper backing was pealed away. the effect was remarkable, but after 100 years of heat and humididy only a handfull of the mounted versions remain. the article mentions the U.S.Supreme court case. it involved only Donaldson Lithographing and another lithographer and had nothing to do with tuchfarber. the family still has a number of the tuchfarber prints

My grandfather, E.M.Brennan was shop mgr.
at Donaldson in until retirement in the 1930's.
Through him I now have a
Harnett "Old Violin" reverse on glass. I would like to communicate with A.R.Donaldson about this picture. Please contact me via email or 860-675-4966.

I have a Harnett "Old Violin" reverse on glass my grandparents obtained in Cincinnati in the early 1900s. It has GUS.ILG.CIN on the bottom of the clipping. Original (I think) wide black frame. Are there many of these still around?

Recent Comments

  • B Kirkpatrick: I have a Harnett "Old Violin" reverse on glass my read more
  • William Longstreet: My grandfather, E.M.Brennan was shop mgr. at Donaldson in until read more
  • andrew r donaldson: there is only one version of the old violin.the first read more