John Haberle (1856-1933) was a 19th century American painter in the trompe l'oeil (literally, "fool the eye") style. His still lifes of ordinary objects are painted in such a way that the painting can be mistaken for the objects themselves. He is considered one of the three major figures—together with William Harnett and John F. Peto—practicing this form of still life painting in the United States in the last quarter of the 19th century.
Haberle was born in New Haven, Connecticut; his parents were Swiss immigrants. At the age of 14 he left school to apprentice with an engraver. He also worked for many years as an exhibit preparator for the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. His career as a painter began in 1887.
His style is characterized by a meticulous rendering of two-dimensional objects. He is especially noted for his depictions of paper objects, including currency. Art historian Alfred Frankenstein has contrasted Haberle's work with that of his contemporaries:
Peto is moved by the pathos of used-up things. Haberle is wry and wacky, full of bravado, self-congratulating virtuosity, and sly flamboyance. He works largely within an old tradition, that of the trompe l'oeil still life in painted line ... It is poles away from Harnett's sumptuosity, careful balances, and well-modeled volumes, and is equally far from Peto's sensitivity in matters of tone and hue.
A Bachelor's Drawer (1890-94) is typical of his approach: various papers, including currency, postage stamps, photos, playing cards, tickets, and newspaper clippings, are shown affixed to an essentially planar surface. Other objects—eyeglasses, a comb, a pipe, matches, and so on—are shallow enough in volume so as not to spoil the illusion.
Like Harnett, he was warned by the Secret Service to cease and desist painting paper money, but he continued to do so throughout his years of greatest productivity; examples include The Changes of Time (1888) and Can You Break a Five? (c. 1885). He painted other subjects such as Slate (c. 1895), a bin of peanuts in Fresh Roasted (1887), The Clay Pipe (1889), and the huge Grandma's Hearthstone (1890), in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts.
By the turn of the century, problems with his eyes diminished Haberle's activity as an artist. Among his later works are paintings of flowers executed in a looser style, and in 1909 he painted his final trompe l'oeil, the large Night, in the collection of the New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut. Haberle died in 1933.