Feb 20, 2015 | artists, portraits, art, paintings

The art of Trompe l’œil (paintings which ‘deceive the eye’)

I recently wrote about the Peale family of American late 18th/ early 19th century artists and specifically about one Rembrandt Peale. His father, an illustrious artist and naturalist who named all of his many children after famous artists and scientists, was an artist in his own right and produced a rather lovely and startlingly inventive portrait of two of his sons sometimes entitled Raphaelle and Titian Peale in a Trompe l’oeil. It’s an unusual, original and clever composition that places the viewer right there at the bottom of the realistically darkened staircase. The painting was Peale’s submission to the Columbianum, an “American Academy of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and Engraving” that he himself had devised. This body was the antecedent to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Art which Peale founded a decade later. The painting promotes not only Charles’ own talent but also that of his young son who is shown holding palette and ‘maulstick’ (used to stabilise the painting).

Charles Peale

Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale I) 1795, Charles Willson Peale © The Philadelphia Museum of Art

It’s the high degree of realistic finish and lighting that gives the trompe l’œil quality, and little details such as the little dropped ticket to Peale’s own museum (inserting himself into the family picture) on the lowest pained step. The sons, aged 15 and 21 are painted exactly life-sized. To really emphasise the point however and increase the illusion, Peale then installed the painting within a moulding resembling a door frame, and added the real wooden step you can see at the bottom. In a final ‘extra’ trompe l’œil touch for added realism, a bank note has ‘dropped’ out of Titian’s pocket as he ascends and is lying on the stairs by his foot. The painting is now on display with the wooden step still in place, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I think this is probably the most fun that an artist ever had with a trompe l’œil, blurring real and pictorial space. Rembrandt Peale, mentioned above, recounted a story that his father’s friend George Washington was so taken in by the illusion that he tipped his hat and greeted the two young men – looking so directly out at the viewer – as he walked by. It’s not just a painting about visual trickery however, but a very warm portrait of his two sons.

Here is an earlier example by one of those specialists of trompe l’œil, the Dutch – Samuel Van Hoogstraeten: Still Life from 1664. The Seventeen Hundreds were a rather a golden age for trompe l’œils and Van Hoostraeten was their great master. If it was the Dutch who re-popularised the trompe l’œil in the seventeenth century, it was because they were also responsible for creating the genre of ‘Still Life’, which whilst loved by the Romans had not really been considered a subject for a painting in its own right, in the interim. As you can see, notice boards were a favourite subject, as again, they were something you would actually find hanging on a wall.

Samuel Van Hoogstraeten: Still Life

Those types of painting were clever, if not terribly exciting. But trompe l’œils could sometimes be dramatic, as in this famous image by Pere Borrel Del Caso painted in 1874 which has the witty title Escaping Criticism. The painter preferred Realism to the Romantic style and perhaps expressed his exasperation with the art critics of his day in this image of a young, poorly clothed boy literally leaping out of the (painted) frame. And what better way than a trompe l’œil to assert the artist’s talent.

Pere Borrel Del Caso

Trompe l’œil originates as far back as Greek and Roman art, both in painting and mosaic. Much of the time it featured in the paintings that adorned the walls of Roman villas, including ornate columns and other architectural details (cheaper to paint them than to actually build them!) This however is my very favourite Greco-Roman Trompe l’œil known as the Unswept Floor. I’m a huge fan of ancient mosaics for their liveliness and delight in detail and observation and this one is very witty. Even the shadows under each object are depicted in mosaic, which shows how sophisticated these artists were.

Here’s a favourite detail from part of the floor – a little mouse feasting on a nut.

The unswept floor

Unswept Floor, mosaic, Herakleitos. Inspired by Sosus of Pergamon, 2nd century AD, © Museum Gregoriano Profano, Vatican

The Italians continued the Roman tradition for trompe l’œils and the device features in very many Early Renaissance paintings. One of the nicest is this well known painting of St Jerome In His Study by Antonello Da Messina, from 1475. The subject of the studious saint is given an extra dimension with the detail of the meticulously rendered stone archway in the foreground, placing the viewer right there within the building. The birds complete with their water bowl enhance the illusion.

 St Jerome In His Study

This was a popular subject for trompe l’œils : the back of a canvas – the reversed frame acting as a sort of double deceit. It was painted by many artists – this one is by one E Hiernault in 1766 and is called Still Life Of The Back Of A Painting With A Hebrew Bookplate.

Still Life Of The Back Of A Painting With A Hebrew Bookplate

This lovely little painting by Carel Fabritius has become very well known recently. Entitled The Goldfinch, it was the subject of an acclaimed new novel by Donna Tartt by the same name. It was painted in 1654. It is only around 9″ by 13″ in size, so whilst I haven’t seen it in person myself (it is in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague) one imagines that the little bird is about life-sized.

The Goldfinch

And finally another trompe l’œil favourite trope – the curtain pulled back to reveal a scene, as in this self portrait by Gerrit Dou from 1646. It’s called Painter With Pipe and Book. There definitely is a sense that ina  trompe l’œil the artist is really showing off, so what better for a self portrait than a demonstration of Dou’s illusionistic skill. You can see more unconventional self portraits in this post.

Painter With Pipe and Book


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