Trompe-l’oeil in art

In January of 2010 I saw a really interesting exhibit at the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence: Art & Illusions: Masterpieces of Trompe-l'œil from Antiquity to the Present.  That exhibit got me to start thinking of the role of  trompe-l’oeil in art.  “Trompe-l’oeil” is French for to trick the eye, it is more than just a realistic work of art but it is something created to fool the viewer or at least make the viewer question what they are seeing.  It is a work which creates an optical illusion, however the term “Trompe-l’oeil” is used to describe a variety of illusions in art.  Some are entertaining and some create quite sophisticated illusions.

There have been many examples throughout time: Ancient Roman, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque as well as modern and contemporary examples.  Let's look at a few of them to compare.
Still life with glass bowl of fruit and vase, wall painting, Pompeian painter c- 70 AD,
The National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy

In the wall paintings uncovered at Pompeii and Herculaneum there are many examples of trompe-l’oeil.  The most typical were similar to the example above showing still-life objects sitting on a "shelf" they were created to show off the skill of the artist and to amuse the viewer.  There were also several mosaic floors created as a trompe-l’oeil showing discarded fish bones.  This skillful works also alluded to the wealth of the owner of the home.

It was said in Ancient Greece that there was a contest between two painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius.  Zeuxis painted grapes that were so realistic they fooled birds into trying to eat them.  However Parrhasius won the contest as he even fooled the other artist; he had painted a pair of curtains and Zeuxis thought that his painting lay behind the curtains.

I don't know if the story is real, but regardless it demonstrates that trompe-l’oeil has been a part of art for centuries.

Painting of a false dome, Andrea Pozzo, 1685, Chiesa di Sant'Ignazio, Rome, Italy
photo- © Jean-Christophe BENOIST/ public domain, via Wikimedia Commons  

Painter Andrea Pozzo cleverly created a false dome within the church of Sant'Ignazio in Rome.  The illusion works perfectly if the viewer is standing in a certain area, they would look up and see a "dome" which is in fact a flat surface with a fake dome painted in.  It is clever as no one would be expecting this type of trompe-l’oeil in a church.  However if the viewer is standing in another area the trick doesn't work.
Architectural trompe-l'oeil gallery, Francesco Borromini, Palazzo Spada, Rome, 1638 
Trompe-l’oeil in art can also be found in sculpture and architecture such as this example by Borromini done earlier in the century. This gallery is a tour de force of trompe-l’oeil in which shrinking rows of columns and a rising floor create the illusion that the gallery is four times longer than it is.  The illusion is made through the use of light, spacing of the columns and the fact that the two archways are vastly different heights.

At first glance Borromini’s gallery is quite long, leading to a statue at the end.  The statue is about three-quarters the height of the distant doorway.  However when I visited a guide walked from one end to the next to show our group of students the illusion; at the far end she was the same height as the statue, but as she walked along the path we saw she was only about a quarter of the height of the first archway.

This can be explained when you realize that the two doorways are of different heights.  However since Borromini constructed this with seemingly perfect perspective, the false perspective tricks you into believing that both doorways are of the same height if you walked from one to the other.

The Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), Charles Willson Peale, 1795,
oil on canvas, Philadelphia Museum of Art; The George W. Elkins Collection

 In this work early American painter Charles Willson Peale creates a trompe-l’oeil by painting life size portraits.
“To enhance the illusion, he installed the painting within a doorframe in his studio, with a real step in front. Rembrandt Peale, another son, recalled that his father's friend George Washington, misled by Peale's artifice, tipped his hat and greeted the two young men as he walked by.”*
*Darrel Sewell, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 267.

Again the Art & Illusions: Masterpieces of Trompe-l'œil exhibit was one of the most interesting art exhibits I have seen: 150 objects related to illusion. Examples really did “trick the eye” into thinking surfaces weren’t flat, objects were coming off the canvas, the canvas was  a piece of wood, or a cabinet with open doors, or something was sculpted rather than painted.  Some  were truly remarkable and I wanted to reach out and touch them as the illusion was so convincing.  

I actually did get tricked with a Duane Hanson sculpture. Hanson was a late 20th century American “hyper-realist” who sculpted people and used real objects in his sculptures, in that exhibit it was a mom pushing a stroller. I didn’t really look at “her” I thought it was a mom pushing a stroller until the person next to me got so close they set off an alarm and then everyone turned to stare and I was truly startled that they weren’t real.  They had her set up as if she was a spectator looking at a painting, which added to the illusion.

That is probably why trompe-l’oeil has worked well and has endured to the present day, because so many examples really do fool the viewer.

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