Until the advent of photography at least, Realism, or something closely related to it, seems to have been the ultimate measure of a painter's skill with a brush. This striving for realism reached a pinnacle in the 1800's in the art of the still life. The French, as they did for so many things in art, had a word for it--Trompe l'oeil (fool the eye). In the latter half of the century, the trend moved to America where it was even more vigorously embraced. The work of William M. Harnett and John Frederick Peto seems almost a contest to see who could be most adept at fooling a willing public into believing, at least for a moment, that what they were seeing in the Victorian frames of the time was "real".
Legend has it that a would-be philatelist once tried to peel from a Harnett painting a postage stamp painted by the artist on an envelop "attached" to the corner of one of his bulletin-board-like paintings. Speaking of stamps, the "contest" reached its ultimate inanity near the turn of the century when Jefferson David Chalfant painted a postage stamp next to an identical "real" one and challenged the viewer to tell which was which. Of course today, the challenge is a no-brainer. The original postage stamp has faded to such a degree that there is no longer any doubt which is which while the painted version looks as fresh as the day it was printed...err...painted!