Art Term Tuesday: Trompe l’œil

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

Autumn is finally here! It’s time for cozy sweaters and bonfires, pumpkin treats, and, of course, tricks! ‘Tis the season for trickery. In just a few days we’ll have children dressed as their favorite characters going door to door for candy, while hooligans let the Halloween spirit get the best of them and play pranks on the unsuspecting. It’s not just the mischievous who take part in feeling tricksy – throughout history, artists have routinely tried to fool the unwitting viewer. How? By employing the use of trompe l’œil.

Trompe l’œil is a French phrase meaning to deceive or trick the eye, a straightforward definition for a precise technique. To truly accomplish trompe l’œil, artists first have to master hyperrealism, or photorealism, where what you’re painting, drawing, or sculpting looks as real as possible. It’s not just a realistic, detailed technique that comes into play: Realist artworks can include various subjects – a child playing with a toy, dogs running through the grass, or a landscape. What sets trompe l’œil apart is that, including being realistic, artists are limited to subject matter that could feasibly be on a wall: playing cards or letters pinned to a board, materials like wood or marble, or window scenes. To get around such a limited list of subject matter, artists often add elements of trompe l’œil to their work, like a still life, by adding a curtain in front of their display, making it look like the still life is sitting on a shelf or in a cupboard. We can see an example of this in Adriaen van der Spelt’s 1658 oil painting, Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain. To begin with, van der Spelt has situated his flower garland inside an alcove, adding much needed depth to the composition. The real magic, however, comes from the blue curtain that appears to cover a third of the painting, even though it is itself part of the composition. We can feel the satiny texture of the blue curtain and imagine how it would sound as the small rings drag across its hanging rod, if only we could touch it!

A still life painting of flowers in a windowsill, with a bright blue curtain pulled aside to reveal the flowers.
Adriaen van der Spelt, Dutch, 1630-1673. Trompe l’oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain. Oil on panel, 1658. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL.

When did this trick begin? As with most things in Western art, with the Greeks. Supposedly, there was a challenge between two of the greatest artists in Greece, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis, in an effort to display his superiority in painting, painted grapes so realistic that birds flew down to peck them. Not to be outdone, Parrhasius painted an illusionistic curtain so believable that Zeuxis, when he saw it, tried to draw it to one side. So famous is this account (or legend, I’ll let you be the judge) that ever since then artists have continued this tradition of tricking each other and their viewers. Parrhasius’ curtain, in particular, shows up again and again, as seen in van der Spelt’s work, as painters emulate their classic predecessors.

Artists literally found new heights for trompe l’œil during the Renaissance. With the advent of perspective, a visual understanding of how to add perceived depth to two-dimensional artwork, artists were able to create the illusion of grand space and scale in ceilings of cathedrals and palaces. One example is Andrea Mantegna’s frescoes in the ceiling of the Ducal Palace in Mantua, Italy; specifically, this vault detail of the Frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi. Here we see the artist conjuring up the illusion of infinite space as the smooth dome appears to open up to the sky, which in turn is littered with tiny putti (cherubic angels) who look down at the audience. In reality, everything portrayed in the dome, from the putti-filled sky to the architectural elements they’re standing on, are all part of the same, smooth, two-dimensional surface.

Painted inside the dome is a cloud-filled, blue sky with putti (angels) looking down at the viewer.
Andrea Mantegna, Italian, 1431-1506. Frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi: Vault Fresco Detail. Fresco, 1473. Ducal Palace, Mantua, Italy.

As we’ve seen in our first example, Dutch artists were particularly fond of trompe l’œil. As they achieved new levels of realism in their still lives by the 17th century, they began pushing the boundaries of their skills. Evert Collier was a painter who specialized in trompe l’œil paintings, particularly ones that resemble letter racks. His mind-boggling skill is apparent in this painting from around 1702, Trompe l’œil with Writing Materials. This work depicts materials that were found in most upper-middle class homes, and everything looks well used, which adds to its realistic feeling. We know how all of the corners of the letters and papers would feel, along with the leather straps holding everything in place. Collier created paintings mostly for an English audience, and he included publications that allude to Charles II and Queen Anne, knowing that this would appeal to his patrons. What’s even more intriguing and clever is how Collier has included his signature. Now, if he’d have just scrawled his name in a lower corner like many an artist, this would have destroyed his illusion – what letter board would have a signature floating at it’s bottom? Rather, he’s included it in a folded note under a paper referencing “Her Majesty’s Speech”, allowing his deception to prevail.

A letterboard filled with letters, a feather pen, a letter opener, a pouch, and other texts.
Evert Collier, Dutch, c. 1640-1708. Trompe l’oeil with Writing Materials. Oil on canvas, c. 1702. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.

Most of our examples have utilized still life as the main artistic movement for trompe l’œil, but it can be especially effective and playful when used in portraiture. In Pere Borrell del Caso’s 1874 painting, Escaping Criticism, the young boy is literally climbing out of his “frame”. How is this done when the edges of a frame are rounded and ridged? Del Caso simply brought his frame into the canvas. There is an outer frame to this painting and, rather than filling the canvas with just his young boy, del Caso has increased the frame’s size by painting more of it onto the canvas. This allows him to portray the boys grip and step onto the frame along with the shadows he creates while escaping. We can feel the energy of this simple painting – it is just a boy fleeing from an unwanted critique, yet we can feel his desperation as he pushes himself into our space. Depending on how this painting was displayed, it would have likely looked like a child climbing through a window and into the room with you.

A young boy, his white lined shirt pulled aside to expose his bare chest, appears to climb outside the frame of the painting, running away from the darkness and whatever is pursuing him, which is not shown in the work. His face reflects fear, and his hands and feet rest outside the frame.
Pere Barrell del Casso, Spanish, 1835-1910. Escaping Criticsm. Oil on canvas, 1874. Collection Banco de Espana, Madrid, Spain.

You may have noticed that all of our examples date to 200 years or earlier, begging the question, “Do artists still use trompe l’œil today”? Today, you’ll mostly find the technique utilized by street artists—those Instagram worthy pavement drawings showing a cavern swallowing the street or a koi pond in the middle of a sidewalk. All of those designs, which are rampant at our annual Chalk Walk event, are trompe l’œil through and through, because as real as they look, they’re not actually there! FWMoA also has a couple of trompe l’œil pieces in our collection. The artist Sylvia Hyman used the technique in a less popular way with her sculpture. While we’ve mostly talked about trompe l’œil and its use in painting or two-dimensional work, Hyman’s skill in stoneware and porcelain resulted in her sculpture, Arrived by Post, looking like anything but her actual materials. She masterfully manipulated her media until it resembled cardboard, pencils, and paper worried by varying degree.

A stoneware sculpture that appears to be a cardboard box filled with stamped and addressed letters and a pencil.
Sylvia Hyman, American, 1917-2012. Arrived by Post. Stoneware and porcelian, 2004. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Hamilton Circle, 2006.15. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

No matter how artists have employed trompe l’œil throughout history, there’s always one core similarity: these works of art make us question the boundary of the painted or artistic world and our own. Much like any truly good trick should.

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