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Trompe l'oeil Painting | Art History

Updated on April 1, 2013
Edward Collier's trompe l'oeil painting.
Edward Collier's trompe l'oeil painting. | Source

Trompe l'Oeil is a style of largely Western art that strives to present subject matter in so realistic a fashion as to appear deceptively lifelike. The French term trompe l'oeil, which means "trick the eye," first appeared around the year 1800 and has since been widely used as a description of a particular genre of highly realistic art. Trompe l'oeil effects have a long history in the production of art; they have been applied primarily to painting, but have been used in sculpture and other objects as well.

Until the advent of premodernist ideas in the late 19th century, it was generally assumed as an important goal in pictorial representation that the painted object should be as like the object itself as possible. What separates trompe l'oeil from other forms of realism, however, is the deliberate intention to deceive the viewer by blurring the distinction between representation and reality. Extraordinary trompe l'oeil effects have also been used by artists simply as a show of virtuosity.

Although few examples of works incorporating trompe l'oeil survive from antiquity, documentary sources illustrate that such effects were common in Greco-Roman culture. A story related by the 1st-century A.D. writer Pliny the Elder tells of the Greek painter Zeuxis (active 435–390 B.C.), who rendered grapes so realistically that birds descended on them only to be disappointed that they were not the actual fruit. Convinced that he had thus produced the most realistic painting ever made, he challenged the artist Parrhasios (active 440–390 B.C.) to unveil his own handiwork for comparison. When Parrhasios showed that the drapery supposedly covering his creation was in fact a painted effect, Zeuxis proclaimed his companion the greater artist, since he could fool not only birds but also a fellow painter. This tale, well known and often repeated in the Renaissance, became a standard by which painterly quality came to be measured for centuries.


In the early Renaissance interest in realism gradually overcame the dependence on stylized forms that were the heritage of Byzantine art. In an early example of trompe l'oeil painting, Flemish artist Jan van Eyck's diptych The Annunciation (c. 1435–1451; Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid) presents the figures as realistically rendered sculptures within painted architectural niches. The masterful shadows, and the angel's wing that overlaps the architectonic elements to project into the viewer's space, give the panels a convincing illusion of three-dimensionality.

An important advance in trompe l'oeil painting occurred in the 15th century, with the Florentine architect Leon Battista Alberti's theory on one-point perspective. His ideas made it much easier to reproduce a convincing depiction of three-dimensional space in a two-dimensional format. Alberti himself described painting as "a window through which we observe the scene represented beyond the frame." Artists soon employed this concept to its best advantage. Use of perspective to create spatial illusions became particularly widespread in architectural settings. In Andrea Mantegna's ceiling fresco in the Camera degli Sposi, in Mantua's Palazzo Ducale, the viewer looks up at foreshortened figures against a stone railing, with a receding space above as if the ceiling were indeed open to the sky. Other notable architectural uses of trompe l'oeil include Francesco di Giorgio Martini's Gubbio studiolo, or small private study (c. 1465; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City), in which panels of inlaid wood meticulously reproduce partially opened doors revealing books, musical instruments, and other objects. Baldassare Peruzzi's Sala delle Prospettive (c. 1515), in the Villa Farnesina, Rome, in which a wall opens into a painted vista over the city, achieved not only fantasy but also architectural effects that were far cheaper than actual building elements.


Trompe l'oeil painting became extremely fashionable in 17th-century Holland. A common trick of artists was to paint a frame or doorway, with the subject in some way overlapping the painted frame, as if protruding into the space of the viewer. Gerrit von Honthorst's painting Joyous Minstrel (1623; Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam) carries this idea to a masterful extreme as the subject extends an arm so far forward as to give the impression of the painted musician's sharing the viewer's side of the picture frame. In a tribute to the ancient master Parrhasios, it was also common to paint a curtain, ostensibly obscuring part of a painting. Examples abound, including Gerrit Houckgeest's Interior of the Oude Kerk in Delft (c. 1650; Rijksmuseum).

In the United States during the 19th century, trompe l'oeil painting enjoyed a remarkable vogue. Painters such as William Michael Harnett, John Haberle, and John Frederick Peto were noted for ultrarealistic depictions of ordinary objects in a shallow space. Among the most common images were objects—letters, money, pictures, tickets, newspaper clippings, and the like—pinned to a wall or board, painted to such a high degree of realism as to appear to be actual objects on an actual board. Among the best-known American artworks of this type is the Harnett painting The Old Violin (1886; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), which portrays a violin and a sheet of music hanging on a door. The Slate (c. 1895; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), by Haberle, shows a chalkboard with half-erased writing. (This latter device would be revisited a century later with an abstract expressionist twist in Cy Twombly's so-called "blackboard paintings," including his 1967 Untitled, in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.)

Even in the 20th century, when realism was no longer the dominant style, trompe l'oeil had significant staying power. The Belgian painter René Magritte, for example, used trompe l'oeil as an important element in his surrealist approach of contrasting illusion and reality; in his painting The Human Condition, or La Condition humaine (1933; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), for example, the painted landscape on a canvas on an easel before an open window merges with the painted landscape behind it. American photorealist paintings, such as Chuck Close's Big Self-Portrait (1969; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis), consciously reproduced photographs, complete with the camera's distortions.

A notable 20th-century development is the use of the trompe l'oeil concept of imitating reality applied to three-dimensional objects. Jasper Johns, in Painted Bronze (1964; artist's collection, on extended loan to the Philadelphia Museum of Art), convincingly reproduces two cans of ale, although the ironic title points out that the object is not what it appears to be; Duane Hanson's Museum Guard (1976; Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.) has fooled many a museumgoer when seen from across the room; and Wendell Castle's Ghost Clock (1985; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.), a grandfather clock partly covered by a sheet, turns out on closer inspection to have been carved from a single block of wood, even though the soft contours and white color of the hanging sheet are in sharp contrast to the crisply carved and naturally toned wood in the clock's base. (Castle's art, in fact, is descended from centuries of illusionistic sculpture, its greatest master arguably Grinling Gibbons [1648–1721], the English woodcarver who, among his other chefs-d'oeuvre, created a lacelike cravat in limewood that was owned, and worn at least once, by the writer and aesthete Horace Walpole.)


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