Can You Trust Your Lying Eyes? Trompe-l’œIl Art Through the Ages

Kayla Mahoney - Tour Guide

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Trompe-l’œIl is French for “trick or deceive the eye.”

It’s an artistic technique that uses shading, realistic imagery, and forced perspective to make the viewer think something is real when it’s not. Kind of like a Tupac hologram or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. For a little background on this tricky technique, here’s a look back on trompe-l’œIl art throughout the ages.

Anything You Can Paint I Can Paint Better

The Twins, Chianti Grapes (1885) by George Henry Hall

Do not read around birds, they may attack.

The story of trompe-l’œIl art goes way-way back to ancient Greece around 400 BC with two artist rivals named Zeuxis and Parrhasius. They were basically the Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera of their day, always trying to one-up the other with cooler, more innovative painting techniques and wacky crimped hair. Okay maybe not that last one.

One day, Zeuxis painted a painting of grapes so realistic that birds came down from the heavens to try and eat them. Not to be outdone, Parrhasius made his own painting and told Zeuxis to check it out from behind some curtains in his workroom. When Zeuxis tried to pull back the curtains, he couldn’t: because they were part of the painting! Then, Parrhasius did whatever version of a touchdown dance ancient Greeks did.

Fake Flies and Faux Skies

Fresco with trompe l’œil dome painted on low vaulting, Jesuit Church, Vienna, by Andrea Pozzo, 1703

High ceilings or good paint?

Fast forward to the Renaissance when Italian painters discovered their love for forced perspective. They would often employ the trompe-l’œIl technique on ceilings to give the viewer the illusion that they are looking up at the sky, or into the heavens, or simply to make the room look bigger or more open. Trompe-L’œIl was also used to play little tricks on the viewer to blur the reality between art and the real world, like placing a small fly on the frame of a painting or “hiding” the subject behind a wall that’s really part of the piece, like our Ancient Greek buddy Parrhasius’ little trick.

The Bad Boys of Trompe-l’œIl

William Michael Harnett, 1885 de Young

World’s first Pinterest board?

John Haberle, John F. Peto, and William Michael Harnett were 19th-century painters who trompe-l’œIl-ed the town red during their careers.

The three men often painted everyday objects like books, instruments, pipes, and papers with a skill so precise it was hard to believe you couldn’t just reach in and grab the object off the wall like some kind of Willy Wonka-esque magic wallpaper. In fact, William Harnett once painted a violin so realistic, it almost caused a riot and had to be guarded so that people wouldn’t try and rip the instrument and bow from its canvas home.

One subject that inspired both William Harnett and John Haberle was that of paper money. The two artists became so skilled that they were brought in by government officials to be questioned in a counterfeit ring. This scared off Harnett, but only made Haberle more interested in using money as his muse, compromising with law enforcement by titling any cash-containing painting “Imitation.”

Make ‘Em Laugh

Singing in the Rain, 1952

They don’t make fake walls like they used to.

Since trompe-l’œIl techniques can be used to make space appear bigger or more interesting, they are often used in set design. The most famous example is the “Make em laugh” sequence in 1952 classic film Singing in the Rain where Donald O’Connor runs up slanted walls painted to look flat with a punchline gag of falling through the last one. Without a trompe-l’œIl, it’d just be a man running around insulting the size of peoples faces.

Chalk It up to Trompe-l’œIl

3D Street Art project by Edgar Müller, 2008

I think I’ll take the long way…

Today trompe-l’œIl art has literally been taken to the streets by artists like Julian Beever and Edgar Müller. These two use chalk and other mediums to create 3-dimensional street art on actual streets and sidewalks. The result is pieces of art that look like they are coming out of the ground or from beneath the ground itself. Imagine walking down a busy street and seeing a shark jump out at you, or almost falling into a fake hole. You can never be too careful in the big city, especially with rapscallion trompe-l’œIl artists abound.

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Chuck Jones, Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies 1949

He would have got away with it too if it wasn’t for those pesky mountains.

We’d be remiss in our exploring of trompe-l’œIl art if we didn’t mention one of it’s most successful, and underrated artists: one Wile E. Coyote.

Mr. Coyote had great talent but often forgot one of the most important aspects of trompe-l’œI street art: location, location, location.

So the next time you see a piece of art that’s too good to be true, it probably is. In the imagined words of Parrhasius to Zeuxis after he revealed his work, “you’ve just been trompe-d!”

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