Published: January 14, 2003
Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting
By A.L. Dunnington
WASHINGTON, D.C. — Deception is a despicable thing: It breaks trust, destroys relationships, and brands the deceivers as less than honorable, at best. Unless the deceivers are masters of trompe l’oeil — in which case, the very opposite applies.
Astonished by the artistry that so tricked and teased the viewer into believing something is that is not, the deceived is left with a marveling thrill once the ruse is revealed. Viewers have an opportunity for many such thrills in “: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting,” on exhibit at the National Gallery of Art (NGA). More than 100 works have been assembled in a show that claims to be the most comprehensive exhibit ever organized on the subject.
“Throughout the ages, trompe l’oeil has always been one of the most popular genres while, at the same time, engaging some of the best artists in its challenges,” said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. The show includes examples from artists as diverse as Titian (Venetian, circa 1490-1576), Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973) and Roy Lichtenstein (American, 1923-1997).
Trompe l’oeil, a French term that means “eye-deceiver,” refers to a centuries-old form of painting that so successfully imitates its subject, the viewer believes it is real.
“With successful painted trompe l’oeils…art retreats behind its product and denies itself,” writes guest curator Sybille Ebert-Schifferer in the exhibition catalog. “…[I]t is the sense of touch alone that allows us to differentiate between the modes of nature and art. We retain the constant of sensory interaction along with the pleasure we feel in successfully unmasking a deception.”
Ebert-Schifferer, director at the Bibliotheca Hertziana, Max Planck Institute for Art History, Rome, became enamored of Nineteenth Century American trompe l’oeil paintings nearly two decades ago. When she learned a trompe l’oeil exhibit was being considered by NGA, she joined forces with the museum to organize “.” Ebert-Schifferer, together with NGA’s coordinating curator Franklin Kelly, senior curator, American and British paintings, and other members of NGA, developed an exhibit designed to educate and entertain viewers, drawing them through a history and exploration of a genre whose roots reach back to antiquity.
The show’s prologue presents the genesis of trompe l’oeil, wrapped in a tale told by Roman author Pliny the Elder: the ancient Greek artist Zeuxis was able to paint grapes so lifelike, birds tried to eat them. His ability to fool even nature itself established him as the standard bearer for perfect imitation of the natural world.
Flushed with his success, Zeuxis entered into a competition with rival artist Parrhasios. When Parrhasios displayed a picture obscured by a curtain, Zeuxis tried to draw the drape to view the painting beneath. Upon realizing the curtain was in fact a painting, and that he, the master, had been deceived, Zeuxis conceded the prize to Parrhasios.
Both stories led to a rash of grape and curtain paintings centuries later, particularly by Seventeenth Century still life Dutch painters seeking to wrest the title of “the Dutch Parrhasios.”
Also harking to ancient traditions were Pompeian still lifes and Roman mosaics depicting foods provided to guests that indicated the host’s status and hospitality. Paintings of these gifts, called xenia, focused especially on game birds. Centuries later, when hunting was considered an aristocratic pastime, Renaissance painters looked back to the ancients for inspiration in paintings that created the illusion of dead game hanging off walls.
French painter Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s lushly realistic series of trompe l’oeil hunting trophies painted for Louis XV earned Oudry the title of best in its genre.
But in the Nineteenth Century, American painter William Michael Harnett poked fun at the game bird tradition with “Plucked Clean,” 1882, oil on canvas, a trompe l’oeil of a defeathered chicken unceremoniously hung by one foot off a piece of twine.
Then there were the fly paintings: A well-known story had it that Giotto (circa 1266-1337) painted flies on paintings that were so realistic, his master tried to shoo them away.
This led to a frenzy of Giotto-competitors, especially in the mid-1400 to early 1500s, who included realistic depictions of flies on everything from illuminated manuscripts to religious paintings. This, however, also signified a sea change in Fourteenth Century thought: no detail of nature was considered too small to bear witness to the magnificence of God’s creation, and close observation of the natural world revolutionized both science and art.
With this background laid down, the viewer progresses through the exhibit’s six main sections.
The first, “Temptation for the Hand,” explores how flat objects such as letters and drawings were made to appear so real a viewer felt compelled to smooth wrinkled papers, organize a disordered surface – or even turn the pages of a book, as in Ludger tom Ring The Younger’s “Open Missal,” circa 1570, oil on panel.
More than a century later, Edward Collyer’s “Trompe L’Oeil,” 1703, oil on canvas, continued the concept with an assemblage of everyday objects, such as a comb, quill pen and razor – along with written texts, symbolic of the wider realm of knowledge — held in place beneath three straps.
Beyond being simply ultrarealistic depictions of familiar subjects, trompe l’oeils often contained subtexts symbolic of the artist’s own philosophical, political and personal views of life.
Lynn Russell, writing about Collyer’s work in the exhibit catalog, observes: “A magnifying glass placed over the text … seems to be a witty comment on the importance of intense visual scrutiny … As a subtle reminder that truth does not lie in appearances, a watch hangs from a golden chain, suggesting the passage of time and thus the transience of all earthly events, even those with international significance — such as the ones reflected in this painting.”
American artist John Haberle expanded on the wit inherent in trompe l’oeil. In “Imitation,” 1887, oil on canvas, Haberle’s painting of money was so realistic that it was said to have been praised by William Michael Harnett, whose own 1877 painting of a five dollar bill had reputedly prompted the FBI to arrest the artist on counterfeiting charges.
The second section, “Things on the Wall,” considers how three-dimensional objects painted on a flat surface are most likely to deceive if the subject is set in a familiar environment.
“Violin Suspended from a Peg,” after 1674, oil on canvas mounted on panel attributed to Jan van der Vaart, appears to be a violin hanging from a door, and was said to have “deceived everybody,” according to Eighteenth Century art critic Horace Walpole.
American painter John Frederick Peto’s “For the Track,” 1895, oil on canvas, paints a realistic worn green door with rusted hinges as the back drop for his composition of horse racing paraphernalia — a jockey’s cap, riding crop, betting stubs, a race track announcement.
“Whatever specific meanings it may hold, ‘For the Track’ clearly references one of still life painting’s most enduring themes, the passage of time and the transience of earthly things,” writes NGA’s Franklin Kelly.
Next, in “Niches, Cupboards, Cabinets,” the challenge of painting three-dimensional objects in three-dimensional spaces is explored: creating an illusion of space so credible that only reaching into the painted surface could convince a viewer it was not real.
Peto’s “Poor Man’s Store,” 1885, oil on canvas, presents a display window with food, candies and toys that tempt viewers to touch the rdf_Descriptions for sale. In fact, the work was likely shown in upper crust galleries whose viewers were unlikely to shop at such a store. Writes NGA’s Kelly: “Peto’s paintings encouraged viewers to contemplate not just their implied physical spaces, but also their potential psychological associations. The fun and games of illusionism, then, could also have served to encourage an understanding of, and sympathy for, those who were less fortunate.”
American artist Charles Willson Peale’s “Staircase Group,” 1795, oil on canvas, is included in the fourth section, “In and Out of the Picture,” which considers ways boundaries are confused between real and imagined spaces. One story claims that when shown at the Peale Museum, George Washington was so convinced by the work that he bowed to its painted figures; at the base of the stairs is a painting of the subscription ticket to Peale’s Museum, curling off the floor.
Particularly winsome is Catalan artist Pere Borrell del Caso’s “Escaping Criticism,” 1874, oil on canvas, in which a youth escapes from a picture frame.
Janis Tomlinson, writing in the exhibit catalog, observes: “The painting recalls the plight of contemporary artists as much as it does the realist tradition in Spanish literature in which picaresque heroes…narrowly escape from danger,” adding that it calls on a “…literary genre in which the outcast protagonist/author appeals directly to the reader in telling his tale.”
In the fifth section, “The Painting as Object,” the whole painting fools the eye, exemplified in two paintings by American John Haberle (1856-1933). “Clock,” undated, oil on canvas, was so realistic that trompe l’oeil scholar Alfred Frankenstein reputedly mistook it several times for the real thing.
Similarly, Haberle’s picture of a picture, “Torn in Transit,” 1890-1895, oil on canvas, convinces viewers that they are truly seeing a painting partially unwrapped from its packing materials.
“As the artist challenged his audience to determine art from artifice, he also construed the spectator as the recipient of the painting,” writes catalog contributor Wendy Bellion, adding that Haberle even painted a torn COD (cash on delivery) label, “…thereby implying that spectatorship, like trompe l’oeil artistry, had a price.”
The exhibit’s final segment, “The Object As Art,” explores the influence of trompe l’oeil on modern art, examining what happens when the definition of art is pushed to include actual material objects in the works, as well as presenting ordinary objects themselves as art.
Claes Oldenburg’s “Glass Case with Pies,” 1962, burlap soaked in plaster, painted with enamel, with pie tins, in glass-enamel case, is simply a recreation of a vintage pie case. Speaking of his art in a 1965 interview, Oldenburg said: “What I want to do is create an independent object which has its existence in a world outside of both the real world as we know it and the world of art…My intention is to make an everyday object that eludes definition.”
Roy Lichtenstein’s “Things on the Wall,” 1973, oil and magna on canvas, borrows from and caricatures the trompe l’oeil genre. Here, states Claudia Bohn-Spector in the exhibition catalog, Lichtenstein emulates masters such as Peto and Harnett with a composition of “…unrelated, everyday objects on a flat plane. Unlike his predecessors, however, he deliberately rejects illusionistic effects by reducing his things to a few glyphic outlines…” Lichtenstein’s collection of sundries references trompe l’oeil’s predilection for everyday objects, and includes such rdf_Descriptions as cartoonishly drawn paintbrushes, a torn envelope, an abstract painting – even a reference to Giotto’s famed fly.
While debates have raged as to whether trompe l’oeil painting represents mere technical skill, lacking depth and imagination, or a sophisticated and ironic mode that plays with the very nature of perception and the workings of the brain, one might argue that a genre that has persisted since antiquity and counts artists from Titian to Picasso among its practitioners has surely established itself as a serious art form — as well as one that happens to be serious fun.
As Ebert-Schifferer writes in the exhibition catalog, “I hope that all of the works in the exhibition will at once enlighten and delight visitors.”
In the end, trompe l’oeil is a deception and illusion that not only works a certain antic magic, but provokes us to reassess our perceptions, whatever the century, whomever the viewer.
“: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting” runs through March 2 at the National Gallery of Art, located on the National Mall, between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW. For information, 202-737-4215 or www.nga.gov.
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