18th C Art / 19th C Art / Eighteenth Century / Nineteenth Century / Paintings

‘Illusion is the first of all pleasures’

Trompe l’oeil is an art technique of using realistic imagery to create works which appear to be three dimensional. Trompe l’oeil is French for ‘ to trick or deceive the eye’. Though it has evolved throughout the centuries, it is a technique of painting which stretches back into antiquity.

There is an ancient Greek story in which two painters are competing with each other to create the most realistic painting. The first paints grapes so realistic that birds fly down from the sky and peck at them. The second painter says his painting is behind a pair of old tattered curtains. The first goes to the curtains and tries to push them aside but he can’t. The curtains are actually part of the painting, he was tricked, and the second painter is victorious.

Archaeologists at Pompeii discovered murals painted to look like windows looking out onto beautiful gardens. Trompe l’oeil paintings were also popular in Baroque times and were used especially for creating the impression of space in rooms; through ceiling paintings, for example.

Trompe l’oeil paintings can often be playful and humorous. The wonderful Musée des Beaux Arts in Rouen has a great collection of trompe l’oeil paintings from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A simple one is this by Joseph Marie Vien Trompe l’oeil avec un crucifix (1819). The artist has painted a classic gold frame for his piece, but notice in the bottom left corner a small green sprig seems to have been tucked into the frame and is catching the light.


A more complex work is Fracois Jouvenet’s (deep breath!) Trompe-l’oeil á la vitre brisée et á l’estampe d’après Saint Antoine de Padoue adorent l’Enfant Jésus d’Anthony van Dyck (1738). Jouvenet could be the inventor of this type of illusion where a print can be seen beneath broken glass. The print is copied from another artist, the creativity in this work is in the shards of glass, some missing, which cover the print and are pretty realistic!


Jean Valette-Penot’s Trompe-l’oeil á la paire de pistolets is a classic example of trompe l’œil painting from this time. It depicts an open cupboard door with certain objects fixed to it. Many of the paintings seem to feature dead animals – this was one of the least graphic! Scraps of paper and illustrations or prints were also popular as seen here.


Nowadays these techniques are often seen in street art, creating gaping holes or swimming pools in the middle of pavements. The endless fun that artists have with creating these scenes shows how we will never get tired of playing with what’s real and what isn’t.



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