Oil on canvas
36 x 28 in.
signed and dated, u.l.: WMH [monogram] HARNETT \ 1878
Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas
In Harnett’s picture, a young boy wears an improvised soldier’s costume. Wearing a paper tricorn hat and holding a wooden rod like a rifle, he stares directly at us. The painting does not identify the boy, but he is probably Isaac White, an 8-year-old formerly enslaved child who appeared in a portrait series published by the National Freedman’s Relief Association in 1864. Harnett may have copied Isaac’s likeness from one of these photographs, adding the costumed accessories and the wall marked with graffiti.
Scholars have debated the meaning of this work. Some have speculated that the picture cruelly mocks efforts at the time to venerate Black Civil War veterans. But others have pointed to the ways that Harnett’s rendering breaks from crude stereotypes, particularly the child’s arresting gaze and his carefully individualized features, suggesting that Attention, Company! says something profound about the precarious status of Black Americans during Reconstruction.
—Text taken from the Carter Handbook (2023)
This 19th-century artist painted a very realistic portrait of a Black boy. In fact, this popular painting style of the period is known as tromp l’oeil, French for “fools the eye,” and the artist’s effort to accomplish this was masterfully achieved. The young boy with chocolate-colored skin, large, dark-brown eyes, and plump lips is shown from about the mid-thigh up as he stands in front of a dark-green, wooden wall covered with torn paper advertisements and carved graffiti. He looks straight ahead at the viewer in an attentive pose with his arms at his sides, imitating that of a soldier. In his right hand, he holds a wooden stick, taller than him, upright like a rifle. A tricorn hat made of newspaper sits on his head at a slight angle so that his black, curly hair can be seen. He wears a long-sleeved, tan coat, fastened at the neck by a thin strip of fabric with silver buttons on each side. The jacket is wrinkled and looks worn, indicated by a patch on his right elbow and the tattered, brown piping along its edges. Under his coat is a gray vest with mismatched buttons and more worn brown piping. The top and bottom buttons of the vest are shiny, smooth brass and the middle button is white, with stitches in the middle holding it in place. Under the boy’s vest is a cream-colored, collarless shirt. The boy's pants match his vest.