Trompe L’oeil: Deceptions and Illusions in Art

Art is created for different reasons. Some create art to make a statement or to record history; others create art as means of self expression and emotional release. Some art serves no higher purpose at all- it is purely an aesthetical experience that an artist creates and a viewer sees. Whatever the purpose (or lack-thereof) of an artwork, it can be argued that art is usually a representation of some sort of the world around us. It can represent concrete or emotional things, and can be realistic or abstract.

In the realm of realistic art, the inevitable question always resurfaces: Why do we as artists painstakingly strive to realistically record and represent the natural world around us? What makes us want to draw, paint, or sculpt a real object into a fabricated version of itself, and try to make it look real? It is hard to pinpoint exactly what produces the desire to create realistic art when it is not necessary for historical or informational purposes.

Although it is hard to define a tangible reason to create illusionistic art, artists throughout time have strived to make art as realistic-looking as possible. Art that deceives the eye and appears to be something that it is not is visually enigmatic, skillfully impressive, and entertaining. Trompe L’oeil, a French term that literally translates to “that which deceives the eye”, has developed since its first known instances in Roman wall paintings into incredible illusionistic visual masterpieces of today.

Relatively recently, trompe l’oeil has underwent a revival. Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods trompe l’oeil was used by illusionistic masters such as Giulio Romano and Correggio to create incredibly deceptive ceiling frescos. Most of these frescos were extremely dramatic and fantastical, and oftentimes created the illusion that ceilings extended past their architectural frames and into the heavens. By the 19th century, however, a significant shift in trompe l’oeil occurred when it began to be used to paint everyday items. Painters such as Cornelius Gysbrechts and William Harnett revolutionized illusionism by attempting to make their art look tangible and real. These deceptive paintings usually consisted of a precisely balanced composition of mundane objects on a surface painted to look like wood. The subjects tended to be run of the mill, however the artworks were incredibly intriguing and enigmatic because they were executed so skillfully and detailed that it was hard to visually process the fact that they were paintings.

In the world of today, artists have acheived an extremely impressive mastery of trompe l'oeil that has reached out of the art world and into the realm of crafts and the media. Artists such as Kurt Wenner have reinvented the illusionistic ceiling frescos of the Renaissance and literally turned them upside down; he creates highly deceptive sidewalk paintings and chalk artworks on the ground of public places. Even with all of the marvels of technology in the world in which we live, illusionistic art still continues to catch peoples' attention. Trompe L'oeil continues to be an exciting and curious avenue for artists of today, and will continue to amaze and confuse people for years to come.

Ixion Room (1st Century A.D.)

Ixion Room
The House of the Vettii was built in the first century A.D. in Pompeii, Rome. Extensive wall paintings like these were preserved throughout the building by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. The 4th style wall paintings in the Ixion Room of the House of the Vettii show trompe l’oeil views of windows and architecture, creating the illusion that there are windows on what is really a solid wall. The Ixion Room was a dining room in which the house's inhabitants would entertain guests with lavish dinner parties. The guests would lounge on couches as they socialized, and the trompe l'oeil windows and other decorations would serve as both an aesthetic decoration and a topic of conversation. Other Roman wall paintings furher explore illusionism, such as the naturalistic fresco entitled Garden Scene. This fresco attempts to create the illusion that a garden is taking the place of the wall, placing the inhabitants in a fantastical natural setting.

The Unswept Floor by Herakleitos
The Unswept Floor

This Roman trompe l'oeil mosaic is a 2nd-century C.E. take on a 2nd-century B.C.E. painting by Sosos of Pergamon. Originally located on the floor of a dining room, the mosaic realistically depicts the remnants of a lavish dinner party that the Romans were infamous for having. Guests at dinner parties would see the mosaic under the couches that they lounged on during these such parties, as a comical and intriguing visual deception. As well as for entertainment purposes, the mosiac served as a way to display luxury and wealth. Whoever hosted the feast wanted to conspicuously announce that they were wealthy enough to have such luxury foods like lobster and cherries in excess. This early example of trompe l'oeil is highly realistic for its time and shows that Roman artists could acheive illusionistic mastery through use of shading and cast shadows.

Fall of the Giants by Giulio Romano (1530-32)
Olympus by Giulio Romano (1530-32)

The Fall of the Giants

Giuilo Romano's fresco The Fall of the Giants is located in the Sala dei Giganti, a room in his architectural creation the Palazzo del Te'. This incredible example of trompe l'oeil is the result Romano's acceptance of Andrea Mantegna's challenge to "paint away the very architechture" of the building that he was designing. The building, which was a "pleasure palace" for Federigo Gonzaga, was full of visual jokes and witty play on classical architectural ideals, and was designed with more space for gardens, pools, and stables than for living.
The Fall of the Giants depicts an intense battle in which the Gods defeat the Giants. The collapsing architecture in the scene is depicted so skillfully that it creates the illusion that the room itself is collapsing into itself and onto the viewer. Romano slightly rounded the walls of the room so that the scenes flow smoothly and appear continuous. The swirling patterned floor, as wells as the highly illusionistic ceiling fresco that seems to spiral up into the heavens add to the incredibly realistic and active experience of the room. The purpose of Romano's trompe l'oeil masterpiece, as well as the entire Palazzo del Te', was to amuse and entertain while maintaining a high level of artistic skill and mastery.

Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso (1874)

Escaping Criticism

Pere Borrell del Caso's Escaping Criticism is an inquiry into the relationship between real and fictitious space. It blends traditional painting with new ideas and explorations in the element of space and how it affects an artwork. The figure of a boy is painted in a Baroque style reminiscent of Caravaggio's highly chiaroscuro paintings. Borrell del Caso expands Caravaggio's dramatic spotlighting of figures, which made them seem to emerge from dark backgrounds. In this painting he takes the use of high contrast to another level; instead of simply jumping out from the backround, Borrell del Caso's figure literally jumps out of the frame that he is painted into. It is both a witty allusion to previous art of the Baroque period, as well as a demonstration of impressive illusionistic skill and imagination. Escaping Criticism explores the question of what art is in relation to the real world, and how these two worlds seemingly interact.

The Old Violin by William Harnett (1886)
The Old Violin

The Old Violin is a classic trompe l'oeil piece by the illusionistic master William Harnett. This painting, along with Harnett's other works, influced a trompe l'oeil revival in artists such as John F. Peto and Cornelius Gysbrechts. The Old Violin depicts an extremely realistic still life of a viloin suspended on a door in front of a sheet of music. Harnett's illusionism is so deceptive that the objects look as if you could pick them up off of the canvas. Harnett's paintstakingly detailed brushstrokes (along with other interesting techniques) and skillfully balanced composition are what make this painting appear so real and add to the trompe l'oeil effect. It is essential that harnett placed all of the objects on a door becuase it brings them closer to the viewer and makes the canvas look like a tangible surface in real space. Subtle details, such as the placement of the hinges and the small key ring on the left, also make the door appear more realistic and unidealized. The old sheet music curls upwards toward the viewer, looking as if it is protruding out of the artwork. Harnett uses refined textures in the small newspaper clipping and the blue envelope to make them appear old and crinkled, adding to their realistic appearance and making them look like they were real pieces of paper tacked onto the painting. This illusion was highly affective, as several people "attempted the removal of the newspaper scrap with their finger-nails."

Ghost Clock by Wendell Castle (1985)

Ghost Clock

Ghost Clock is a deceptive trompe l'oeil sculpture by the woodworking master Wendell Castle. This piece explores texture, form, color, and medium, and is distinctively modern because of its emphasis on the material that it is made out of: wood. At first glance, the sculpture appears to be a mixed-media piece of an old clock covered by a cloth white sheet. What it really is, however, is a highly illusionistic wooden imitation of a sheet that is carved from bleached mahogany, that appears to be covering a clock but really isn't. Castle's trompe l'oeil play on texture and form is both visually deceptive and interesting and conveys his artistic skill. The sculpture is intriguing both for its trompe l'oeil play on texture and form as well as the almost haunting image that it evokes. The false sheet covering an old clock can represent many different things, such as timelessness and eternity.

Dies Irae by Kurt Wenner

Dies Irae

Dies Irae is a street painting by Kurt Wenner painted in a town square in Italy. Wenner uses impressive trompe l’oeil to create the illusion that the sidewalk is crumbling away into a deep hole in the ground. What appears to be a giant abyss in the courtyard is simply a masterpiece of trompe l’oeil that tricks the viewer into thinking that it is a real hole. Wenner's use of precise perspective, shading, and cast shadows are what make the work appear so realistic. Twisted, tortured figures burst forth from the hole and scramble up onto the edge of the viewers' ground level, involving the viewer in the work and thus making it appear more realistic as well. Interestingly, Dies Irae is an anamorphic image; the three dimensional illusion that it creates only works from the viewpoint from which this photograph was taken. Although the person in this photograph helps the viewer see the life-size scale of the painting, he is only pretending to look curiously into the hole because from his point of view the perspective doesn't work and the illusion is not effective.

Works Cited:

"Optical Illusions: Kurt Wenner". www,

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History. Pearson Education, Inc, New Jersey; 2005.

"The House of the Vettii". The University of Texas at Austin. 2002.

"Trompe L'oeil: William Harnett". The National Gallery of Art. Washington, DC: 2008.

"Wendell Castle: Ghost Clock".

Image Sources: (Ixion Room, Fall of the Giants) (Escaping Criticism) ( Fall of the Giants) (The Unswept Floor) (Ghost Clock) (Dies Arae) (The Old Violin)