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Trompe-L'œil - 3D Painting From the 19th Century

Updated on March 27, 2020
JerryFisher profile image

Maybe like you I find early Trompe-L'oeil painting fascinating. Predates modern computer 3D modelling by 2500 years!

Escaping criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874

First Trompe-l'oeil paintings?


Perhaps the earliest story behind the origin of Trompe-l’oeil, is that of the two painters, Parrhasius and Zeuxis. Around 460BC, Zeuxis painted such a life like painting that birds would swoop down trying to peak at the grapes. His rival, Parrhasius asked Zeuxis if he would like to judge one of his paintings. He told Zeuxis when he came to his studio that the painting he wanted him to critique was behind two old curtains in the corner. Zeauxis went to the corner and tried to pull the curtains apart but straight away realised that why he couldn’t was because the curtains were part of Parrhasius’s painting.

William Harnett - US trompe-l'oeil painter of 1848-1892

Harnett, born in 1848 in Ireland, and his family emigrated to the US and Philadelphia shortly after his birth, during the potato famine.

His trompe-l’oeil work was unusual in that he painted everyday objects – a pipe and tobacco, a row of untidy books.

One famous 3D inspired painting by Harnett is a single rusted horseshoe, hanging by a couple of rusted nails and has a crinkled news clipping, quickly cut by a pair of scissors beneath it. The horseshoe is mounted on two planks of stained timber with two nails bleeding rust down the stain. A stunning example of trompe-l’oeil.

Harnett's rusty horseshoe painting

Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts

Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts was hired by the Danish autocrat king, Frederik 111 from 1668 to 1670 as a court painter, and also by Christian V who succeeded Frederick. He set himself up in a studio at the Rosenborg Castle in Denmark. He travelled after this and seemed to only spend a minimal time after this painting. In 1675 in Germany, was the year of his last known painting.

The National Gallery of Denmark holds 22 of his 70 paintings, with others in Germany.

Gysbrechts early paintings reflect a lot of the transience of life, with subjects such as a skull with a feather, an hourglass and burned down candle.

Later and when he was on the grounds and a servant of the Royal Family, he painted objects that were more familiar to them. Hunting implements, letter racks and musical instruments and all at full size.

(With self portrait)
(With self portrait)

Henri Cadiou French painter 1906-1989

"True style is unconscious. Everything that is the result of reasoning is not art. Admittedly, the artist can use his reason as the mason uses the frame, but the finished work should not let anything appear. (Henry Cadiou)

Self portrait
Self portrait
Handel with care
Handel with care

Modern Trompe-l'oeil

Modern trompe-l'oeil painting is now commonly put down on large murals and pavements. Pavement drawings are done in chalk and will only last as long as the rain comes.

Even entire walls of buildings have had 3D images painted on.

Here was a blank concrete wall once, in Roundstone Street, Trowbridge, UK. This was painted and created by Wiltshire Steeplejacks and Roger Smith and painted in 2003.
Here was a blank concrete wall once, in Roundstone Street, Trowbridge, UK. This was painted and created by Wiltshire Steeplejacks and Roger Smith and painted in 2003.
Paris, 2007. This was the view of 39 George V building. These were photographs hung over the entire scaffolding while the building was been renovated.
Paris, 2007. This was the view of 39 George V building. These were photographs hung over the entire scaffolding while the building was been renovated.
This is the garage door of former writer for the LA Times, Lee Dembart. Dembart loves books so much he had this trompe-l'oeil painted by artist Don Gray in 2005.
This is the garage door of former writer for the LA Times, Lee Dembart. Dembart loves books so much he had this trompe-l'oeil painted by artist Don Gray in 2005.
Marion Street, Wellington, New Zealand. Marion St used to be a busy street at night for streetwalkers since the 19th century. Here a sex worker is immortalised forever leaning against this brick building.
Marion Street, Wellington, New Zealand. Marion St used to be a busy street at night for streetwalkers since the 19th century. Here a sex worker is immortalised forever leaning against this brick building.

If you want to learn a little more about Trompe-l'oeil you can't go past this book by Timothy Plant. Plant has first hand experience as a mural painter since 19

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