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Trompe-l’œil: A trick to the eye or a pleasure to the sight?

“Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” Groucho Marx. It is a matter of perspective that art is able to mislead us. A trompe-l’œil is just that, it is always trying to set us a trap, so that we see what it is really not. So, what is a trompe-l’œil? A trick to the eye or a pleasure to the sight? Today, on our painting blog, we are going to talk about this artistic technique.

The French word trompe-l’œil (deceive the eye) refers to an artistic technique of realistic representation, whose purpose is to distort our visual perception by intentionally playing with perspective and other optical elements, such as the use of chiaroscuro.

It is when the artist becomes a kind of illusionist, who seeks to make the public wonder: is what I’m seeing real? When the artist manages to mock the spectator’s reality, deception becomes anecdotal and, why not, funny.

Origins of the trompe-l’œil

Although the term “trompe-l’œil” originated in the Baroque period, the technique dates much further back, from Ancient Greece times, when Pliny already narrated in his encyclopaedia of Natural History an episode concerning the traps in art made by two renowned artists, Zeuxis and Parrhasius.

They disputed about which of both could best represent reality on their canvases. Zeuxis was already considered the winner when birds flew down to peck at the grapes he had painted. He then asked Parrhasius to pull back the curtains that covered his work. Finally, Parrhasius was the winner, since there was no curtain covering his painting.

The Renaissance historian Giorgio Vasari told a similar scene about Giotto, who, since he was very young, had showed a great precocity for naturalism. He once painted a fly on the nose of a figure on a painting that his master Cimabue was working on, and Cimabue fell into the trap when he got close to frighten it.

Trompe-l’œil as a decorative technique

Beyond the anecdotes, the technique of trompe-l’oeil has also been used as a decorative resource, in order to achieve a greater feeling of depth in ceilings and walls, and this is well known by Italian Renaissance artists, such as Andrea Mantegna or Melozzo da Forli.

Many palaces and churches had their ceilings and walls decorated with architectural illusions that simulated doors, balconies, columns, rooms or open-background landscapes. Well-known examples of this technique are the Assumption of the Virgin in the Duomo of Parma and the Camera degli Sposi in Mantua.

This tradition continued during the Baroque period, used mainly in vaults, with those optical illusions of open-up skies to welcome the ascension of Jesus or Mary. A good example of this can be found on the vault of the Roman church of St. Ignatius, painted by Andrea Pozzo.

Touching is believing

The trompe-l’œil technique was still very popular in 17th Century’s Dutch and Flemish paintings and was also closely linked to still life paintings, where we must highlight the Flemish artist Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts, whose paintings invite us to conceive the fantasy of a three-dimensional space from a frame.

He was also the creator of a kind of painting known as chantourné, which occurs when deception invades the spectator’s space, that is, when the painting seems to come out of the wall leaving the limits of the canvas, which makes the observers have the temptation to touch the work to check if what they are seeing is real or if it is a mere illusion.

Easel painting leads to this confusion through the representation of curtains, mirrors, flies, still lives or real-size figures which further increase the histrionic effect.

Some contemporary artists such as George Braque, Pablo Picasso or René Magritte also joined the game of provoking visual deceptions. Cubists, for example, used the trompe-l’œil technique through their collages by trying to imitate pieces of materials such as paper or wood without actually being adhered to the canvas.

But the most outstanding artist within this style was Pere Borrell del Caso (1835 – 1910), whose painting Escaping Criticism has never gone unnoticed, so that his painting has been on uncountable occasions the cover of international books about trompe-l’œil paintings.

Anamorphic drawings

Currently, trompe-l’œil is still a very attractive resource to improve and decorate the urban aesthetics, by means of party or anodyne walls, simulating buildings where there are none, or holes through which you can see a home’s imagined interior.

There are also urban artists who have specialized in creating trompe-l’œil paintings on the paving of cities, which to see their effect must be observed from a specific perspective. These trompe-l’œil paintings we like so much are in fact anamorphic drawings.

An anamorphosis is a drawing distorted in such a way that it is only perfectly visible if observed in an unconventional way. To create such images, artists project the drawing on an oblique plane, so that it is incomprehensible, since it simulates a very different image if we do not look at it from the eccentric point of view adopted for its projection.

A related technique is that promoted by the Swiss artist Felice Varini, in which on any non-flat surface —be it a museum, a room, a street, etc.— he traces geometric figures with partial sections of curves or independent segments, but if observed from a specific point, they acquire continuity and give the illusion that they are complete figures on the plane.

Finally, we should mention a few artists who create 3D drawings on pavings. Among them, Eduardo Rolero, Edgar Müller, Manfred Stader, Julian Beever and Kurt Wenner.