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.

Continuous Narrative in Art

What is meant by the "Continuous Narrative" in art?  Many artworks contain a "narrative" or representation of an event.  The continuous narrative is a way to tell an entire story within one artwork, the same characters show up repeatedly in order to give a timeline of events in the story.  Often the same groups of characters are shown right next to each other in the same painting or sculptural frieze. 

These side by side scenes can be thought of as pre-cursors to modern day comic strips.  They weren’t shown in different panels, but this would have been understood by contemporary audiences to be telling a story.

Column of Marcus Aurelius, detail, bottom three bands of helical relief 
Emperor's campaigns against the Germans and the Sarmatians. 180-185 A.D., Rome
photo- © Simone Ramella / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons  

This was used as far back as ancient Assyrian and Babylonian art and remained popular throughout much of art history to depict an entire event from start to finish.  The Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome has one long sculptural frieze that winds up the entire length of the column.  The column shaft measures nearly 100 feet (29.62 meters) long.

It is nearly impossible for a viewer on the ground to look up and see the entire story and know what is going on.  The sculptors took this into account and made each band slightly wider as it wound up the column.  The heads of the figures were also shown slightly larger than proportionally correct so that they could be recognized from below.

As this column shows several military battles where the Romans were triumphant, the same soldiers and military commanders are shown over and over again.  Objects such as trees, rivers, horses and architecture help separate and frame each scene.

Column of Marcus Aurelius, c-193 A.D., Rome
photo- © Matthias Kabel / public domain, via Wikimedia Commons  

The technique of continuous narrative was used frequently in Renaissance painting.  A good example of this can also  be found in the large devotional panel by Gentile da Fabriano which shows the adoration (seen below).  
 Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
egg tempera and gold leaf on wood panel

The main scene shows the three Magi (or three wise men) as they have come to give gifts to the newborn Christ child.  However the Magi are shown in miniature in the scenes above, from the first time they see the Star of Bethlehem to the entire journey they make.  We can see the star several times as well and it ends up glowing like a golden orb over St. Joseph's head in the central scene.

In the detail (below) we can see a close up of the left arch of the painting and can make out the three Magi seeing the Star of Bethlehem for the first time.  In each of the other two arches the viewer can follow along with their journey.
Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
detail of the central upper register of the panel 

St. Peter is seen three times in the fresco below.  This fresco by Masaccio is especially interesting as the story does not occur from left to right as in most examples, but jumps from the center to the left and then to the right.  This biblical story was very well known, so the contemporary viewer would not have been confused by this.  The story begins in the central portion of the frame when the tax collector asks for the temple tax and Christ tells his apostles that they need to find money to pay the temple tax, he turns to Peter and tells him to look in the mouth of a fish in order to find the coin.  This event of course is a miraculous one.

Part two of the story takes place just to the left of the main action, St. Peter is wearing the same blue robe but has set his golden sash aside for a moment while he looks for a fish in the sea.  Then part three of the story jumps over to the right hand side where after finding the coin as Christ has said, St. Peter pays the tax.  Again to help the viewer keep track of St. Peter, he is shown wearing his blue robe and gold sash and the tax collector is the only person wearing a short tunic.

The Tribute Money, Masaccio, 1425, fresco, Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence

In his famous fresco cycle in Santa Maria Novella the artist Ghirlandaio has also used continuous narrative.  Remember from earlier blog posts that Ghirlandaio was in fact the teacher of Michelangelo.  Michelangelo was a student in his workshop during the time that these frescoes were being painted, so he would have worked on these as well.

In the panel showing the birth of the Virgin Mary, the birth is concentrated in the lower right hand portion of the frame.  However the Immaculate Conception (which refers to the fact that Mary's mother St. Anne was impregnated by just a kiss from her husband Joachim) is shown to us in the top left hand portion.  Therefore St. Anne is shown twice in the same room.  However that was understood by all to have occurred at two different times within the same story; even though each event took place nine months apart.

Immaculate Conception and Birth of the Virgin Mary, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485-90
Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

In our final example (below) we are seeing the Rest on the Flight Into Egypt.  The artist David shows us that this is his theme rather than a typical portrait of the Virgin and Child by showing the holy family in the background in the woods.  By seeing two versions of Jesus and the Madonna, one in the foreground and one in the background, the viewer understands that they are both scenes in the same story.  The riding of the donkey is always understood in Renaissance painting as being part of the flight into Egypt from the Biblical story.

The use of the same figures in one panel, which David employs quite subtly in this work, is yet another example of the continuous narrative in art.

Rest on the Flight into Egypt, Gerard David, 1512-15
oil on wood panel, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Now that you have learned about the use of the continuous narrative in art you will certainly notice many other examples.

Songwriting - Understanding the Purposes of Verses, Choruses and Every Other Section of a Song

It's important to understand that each section of a song typically has a role to fulfill. If you know the purpose of each section in your song, you'll be better prepared to write a great song. Of course, most songs won't use all of the sections listed below, but knowing the purpose of your sections is crucial to understanding how to put together a solid song.

Lyrically, the verses of your song will move your story forward. The chorus or refrain is likely to have the same words each time, so the verse is your chance to keep your ideas moving along.

Think of your chorus as the big idea for what your song's all about. That's partly why your title is most likely to show up in your chorus. Your title also sums up what the song's about. Melodically, the chorus will be the catchiest part of your song. This is what people will have stuck in their head long after your song is over. That's another reason it's good to have your title in the chorus. When people get your chorus stuck in their head, they'll easily know what your song is called and can find it later when they want to hear it again.

The pre-chorus is an add-on before the chorus. It usually repeats the same lyrics each time, the same way a chorus does. Musically, a lot of times it creates a nice build up to what's coming in the chorus. Katy Perry's "Firework" was a good example of that, as you saw above.

The bridge is a departure from what we've heard in a song, previously. This goes for both the lyrics and the music. Lyrically, it's an opportunity for a new perspective. Musically, it's a chance to offer the listener something they haven't heard before to keep the song interesting.

In the verse / verse / bridge / verse song structure, the refrain is the line that draws all the attention in your verses. It's usually at the beginning or end of each verse and is often the title of the song.

The hook doesn't necessarily refer to a specific section of a song, except to say it's the catchiest part of a song. Most of the time, it will be your chorus, if your song has one. If your song doesn't have a chorus your hook will most likely be your refrain. As hit songwriter, Clay Drayton, says "A fish knows the hook... Once it's in you, it's hard to get it out."