Trompe-l’œil, literally ‘to deceive the eye’ in French, is often used to refer to a type of illusionistic painting. The term primarily denotes two modes in flat art: the use of perspective in wall or easel painting or quadratura, a type of illusionistic ceiling painting. In both instances, the viewer’s eye is manipulated through linear or forced perspective.
The ability to imitate nature totally has captured the collective imagination of artists for millennia. In the Natural History, Pliny the Elder recounts the painting competition between Zeuxis and Parhassius held to determine the better artist. In the tale, Zeuxis unveils his work: grapes so lifelike that birds fly down to try and eat them. When trying to unveil the painting by Parhassius, it is revealed that the curtains thought to hide the work were paint. The story ends with Zeuxis admitting defeat, saying it is one thing to fool an animal but another to fool man.
History of Trompe-lœil
This idea of virtuosity in painting was reignited in the Renaissance, when the ability to replicate nature was highly valued. The advent of linear perspective, one of the many techniques to achieve naturalism, is closely linked to trompe-lœil. Artists such as Leonardo envisioned painting as an open window to another world. This idea is encapsulated by Masaccio’s The Holy Trinity, painted to appear like an altar in which Christ, the Virgin and St John the Baptist miraculously appear. In incorporating the surroundings of Santa Maria Novella, and using fictive elements such as pillars and a coffered barrel vault ceiling, Masaccio was able to enhance this illusionistic depth.
Trompe-l’œil as a technique is grounded in linearity, artists using strong horizontal and rectilinear forms to achieve a certain effect. This is particularly evident in ceiling painting. Quadratura incorporates foreshortening among other tools to create the illusion of three-dimensional space. The technique di sotto in sù – or seen from below – is an early development of this. Exemplified in Mantegna’s ceiling fresco in the Ducal Palace in Mantua, which depicts an oculus – or a circular opening in a dome – revealing a blue sky. This opening is surrounded by an ornamental balustrade around which putti and other figures look down onto the viewer. Later examples of quadratura, such as the work of Andrea Pozzo, continued this use of imagined architectural elements to extend and elevate pre-existing structures.
Even outside of an architectural context, linearity was employed to achieve depth. Works by the Dutch master, Evert Collier, showcase how the use of parallel lines, in the guise of a letter rack, add to an illusion of depth or three-dimensionality. Similarly, the work Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso incorporates a painted frame to make the figure appear as if they are coming forth from their plane into the realm of the viewer.
However, trompe-lœil does not always refer to the use of linearity. Small elements such as flies, like in Portrait of a Carthusian by Petrus Christus, can be used to further blur this line between the real and the painted. Likewise, techniques like grisaille – or the use of grey-scale – and faux marbling and wood graining help create the illusion of reality. In contemporary art criticism, the definition is less fixed. The term trompe-lœil can be used to describe works in other media, such as ceramic or hyperrealist sculpture, that achieve the true to life appearance of another object or being.
Notable Trompe-lœil Artworks