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Have you ever seen those amazing paintings where it looks like a person or an object is about to step right out of it? If so, then you’ve admired a trompe l’oeil painting.

If you’re not an artist yourself, you may not be familiar with the term “trompe l’oeil” (pronounced ‘tromp-loi’ or ‘tromp lo-ay’).

Trompe l’oeil is French for “to deceive the eye”, and is a type of painting which creates the illusion that what the viewer is looking at is real. And it goes a little beyond simple hyper- or photo-realism.

Trompe l’oeil paintings create an incredible sense of depth and dimension, despite the fact that all of the painting’s elements are painted on a single plane. Even though all the objects are painted on the same plane, the artist’s skill makes it appear as if there are different planes in the picture.

One of the most remarkable examples of a trompe l’oeil is “Trompe-l’oeil with a Partial Portrait of Maria Theresa of Austria” (1762–63), by 17th-century Swiss painter Jean-Etienne Liotard.

Here the artist has painted three distinct surface planes:
1) The plaster bas-relief cameo in the upper left-hand corner, which appears to be hanging from a pin stuck into 2) A wooden plank, which is partially obscuring 3) A portrait of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria.

The shadow running down the edge of the wooden plank makes it look for all the world like it’s on a different plane, in front of the portrait. When in reality, this is a completely flat, two-dimensional surface, and the artist has tricked your eye into believing you can reach out and pull that wooden panel to the side in order to see the rest of the portrait.

The earliest examples of trompe l’oeil paintings come from ancient Greece. Legend tells of Zeuxis, an artist who painted some grapes so realistically that the birds flew down and tried to eat them.

Matthijs Naiveu, “Grapes in a Niche”, late 17th century

Creating a convincing trompe l’oeil painting requires not only the skill to paint realistically, but also an understanding and mastery of perspective, lighting, texture, and form. The point is to make it appear as though an object is literally sticking out of the picture, or can be removed from it, so the artist must achieve a high level of verisimilitude — (that is, the appearance of being true) — in order to make the illusion effective.

French painter Bruno Logan is keeping this mesmerizing form of eye-trickery alive today. Here are a few of his beautiful trompe l’oeil paintings.

Trompe l’oeil was also a popular technique during the Renaissance when artists decided to think bigger, competing with and complementing the grand architecture of the time. The ceilings of churches and cathedrals were painted to convey the illusion of infinite space, like we see here with Andrea Mantegna’s heavenly cherub-ed ceiling of the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua, Italy, ca. 1474.

In 1668, Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts merged trompe l’oeil with another art trend popular at the time: The Vanitas painting.

Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts, “Trompe l’oeil with Studio Wall and Vanitas Still-Life”, 1668

The wings of Jan van Eyck’s “The Annunciation Diptych” (1433-35) at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid features the Archangel Gabriel (left), and the Virgin Mary (right) depicted as sculpted figures, which appear to be set out in front of the painted frame, as shown by the shadows that each casts onto the frame. Van Eyck adds yet another layer of dimensional illusion by painting reflections into the blackness behind the figures, leaving the impression that they’re standing in front of mirrors.

Jan van Eyck, “The Annunciation Diptych”, 1433-35

This is perhaps my favourite classical example of trompe l’oeil because it really illustrates the idea of bringing the painted space into the viewer’s space. Trompe l’oeils break the boundary between the flat painted world and the real three-dimensional world.

This illusory style of painting is also popular in large mural form, where it can appear that there’s a whole entire world beyond a wall in your home.

Here, artist Bryony Bensly has painted a wooden cabinet door as if you can see directly inside of it.

And this 1550-60 era Flemish painting of a boy looking through a casement really looks like a boy is standing behind a real leaded-glass window. It’s so well executed that you can almost hear him tapping on it.

To reiterate, the key to a successful trompe l’oeil painting is creating the illusion of great depth in the piece. Taking a flat surface and transforming it into something you feel as if you could interact with.

Sally Fama Cochrane, “Scurvy”

Now that we’ve familiarized ourselves with beautifully rendered textbook representations of this particular form of art trickery, let me show you an example of what’s NOT a trompe l’oeil painting (and the whole reason I even sat down to write this blog post, honestly).

The following image and caption were in a recent daily email newsletter that I get from a large online art establishment.

The picture is of a 1928 work by surrealist painter René Magritte, titled “The Treachery of Images”. Part of the painting itself is the French phrase, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” — “this is not a pipe”.

This is a painting that brings the wanna-be art snobs out in droves. They love to postulate about possible hidden meanings in the painting. Was Magritte asking a deeper question? Maybe we get conflicting messages from images and text. Is he expressing his ideas regarding propaganda during this time period? When the fact is, the painting is not an actual pipe, but rather simply an image of a pipe. A painting of a pipe… not a real pipe. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” This is not a pipe. Yep, really exciting esoteric stuff here…

It never ceases to amaze me how hard people will try to read something into a painting that has nothing extra to say, yet you show them something that is obviously brimming with symbolism and they dismiss it as nothing but a fantasy picture.

Fiona Cotton, “Trompe l’oeil”

But MY point here is that “The Treachery of Images” is NOT a trompe l’oeil painting.

Magritte’s famous pipe/not-a-pipe was promoting an article called “A Glossary of Art Terms Every Artist Should Know”. Included in their list was, of course, “trompe l’oeil”. They even managed to do an acceptable job with their definition:

“The treachery of images indeed! This is a French term for “deceiving the eye” and is applied to the painting techniques employed to create an optical illusion of reality, using perspective techniques and devices like breaking the picture plane–so an object looks like it is jutting out of the surface of a painting.”

“Perspective techniques”.
“Breaking the picture plane”.
“Object looks like it is jutting out of the surface of a painting”.

Magritte’s painting does NONE. OF. THESE. THINGS. So to say that his painting is a “perfect and famous example of a trompe l’oeil painting”? I’m sorry, but that’s just a no from me.

Trompe l’oeil? Yes. Otis Kaye, “Easy Come, Easy Go”

You will find a number of other sources which also refer to Magritte’s painting as a trompe l’oeil (like the Tate Gallery in Britain — who also think it’s totally reputable to compose their artist bios from Wikipedia entries *ahem*), and so you too are of course free to ignore the fact that aside from being a reasonably realistic looking pipe, Magritte’s painting has none of the other characteristics and effects which are indicative of a trompe l’oeil. There’s no depth, there’s no play on perspective, there’s no illusion. There aren’t multiple planes. It’s just a picture of a pipe.

As I explained at the beginning, trompe l’oeil painting is a lot more than just a photo-realistic depiction of an object. Compositionally, trompe l’oeil and photo/hyper-realism are different. Like all words in our complicated and comprehensive English language, there is a reason we have so many terms and names in art — because each one has its own separate definition and meaning.

In my opinion, hyperrealism ≠ trompe l’oeil, and equally, trompe l’oeil ≠ hyperrealism.

Also a trompe l’oeil. Gayle B. Tate, “Love Your Country”

No matter what subject you’re interested in, be it art, or history, or writing, I would encourage you to think critically and always seek the truth for yourself. Just because someone said something, or wrote something down, doesn’t mean it’s accurate. And the more people who blindly swallow a lie, the more established that lie becomes as “truth”.

It’s difficult to run contrary to what is considered by others to be established conventional wisdom, and a lot of people are content to just “go with the flow” and who really cares if it’s right or wrong. And I think it’s this fear of disagreement, and quite frankly this trend towards laziness in humankind which has, in my opinion, diluted the original definition of what a trompe l’oeil painting is in many people’s minds.

So while I can agree that Magritte’s pipe is nicely rendered….. I can’t imagine Sherlock Holmes plucking it off the canvas and smoking it. If it was actually a trompe l’oeil painting, I could.

Are YOU a fan of the art trickery known as the trompe l’oeil? Let me know in the comments. But if you say that you don’t enjoy these illustrated illusions…

…eye’ll know you’re lying.

Richard Haas’s larger-than-life architectural mural at the Fontainebleau Hotel, Miami Beach Florida, 1985-86


Note: The header image is a detail from Pere Borrell del Caso’s “Escaping Criticism”, 1874.

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