It is a common reaction, among attendees of 3D cinemas, to claw the air impulsively when the vulcanised hand of some Fifties sci-fi monster hovers directly in front of their red-and-green spectacles. It can hardly be supposed that the audience would actually care to make contact with such a threatening appendage, but so thoroughly are their eyes deceived by the apparatus of the B-movie that the will to touch is almost involuntary. The same can be said of trompe-l’oeil painting; indeed, this is perhaps the reason that galleries introduced brass posts with velvet ropes, to prevent tourists coating the pictures with credulous fingerprints.

Trompe-l’oeil differs from standard representational painting in that it seems to project out towards the viewer, rather than receding away as if seen through the window of the picture frame. That said, in the case of “medleys” – imitations of letter racks and noticeboards, allowing the artist to demonstrate the versatility of his hand by adopting a number of different pictorial styles – the object depicted can barely be described as three-dimensional in the first place. This no doubt contributes to the effectiveness of the trompe-l’oeil; Which is Which?, for example, a 19th-century painting by Jefferson David Chalfant on which a real 4¢ Lincoln stamp is pasted alongside a painted counterfeit, has a surface marked by scratches where viewers have attempted to answer the titular query.

Although this book’s title refers to “five centuries” of trompe-l’oeil art, its origins date back to the Classical concept of mimesis, the imitation of nature that was so exalted by Aristotle. Fans of Pliny the Elder will recall that the Greek painter Zeuxis once entered into a competition with his rival Parrhasios – Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes so convincing that the birds flocked to feed upon it. After this occurred, he ordered that Parrhasios unveil his picture, and was embarrassed to discover that the curtain in question was itself a deft piece of trompe-l’oeil. Many painters in recent centuries have sought to capitalise on association with this legend by depicting similar objects, and the examples chosen in this book shore up the suggestion that artists who are able to rustle up a convincing curtain – Titian, Gerrit Dou and Wendell Castle among them – have the edge over those whose renditions of fruit have a verisimilitude that is fit only to deceive dumb animals.

The advent of photography has done much to discredit the idea that art should hold, as it were, a mirror up to nature. But trompe-l’oeil still had a place in the 20th century, be it in Duane Hanson’s Superrealism, Magritte’s pipe dreams, or the “rear of a canvas” painted by Roy Lichtenstein. The cartoonish spots on the latter would gull no-one into thinking it was real, but in his pop-culture way Lichtenstein kept alive a format that was particularly favoured by his 19th-century forebears. Trompe-l’oeil that does not attempt to fool the eye – what next?

First published in World of Interiors issue 253. Reproduced with permission.

Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe-l’Oeil Painting

by Sybille Ebert-Schifferer  (Lund Humphries)

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