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Trompe l’oeil, the illusion in the past

Trompe l’oeil is an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions. Paintings is cleverly designed to trick people into thinking that the objects represented in it are really there.
This technique originates in the Baroque period, when it refers to perspectival illusionism often employed in murals (examples from Greek and Roman times are known). A typical Trompe l’oeil mural might depict a window, door, or hallway, intended to suggest a larger room.

Still life, Pompeii, c. 70 AD

The term origin in an oft-told ancient Greek story: Zeuxis (born around 464 BC) produced a still life painting so convincing that birds flew down to peck at the painted grapes. A rival, Parrhasius, asked Zeuxis to judge one of his paintings that was behind a pair of tattered curtains in his study. Parrhasius asked Zeuxis to pull back the curtains, but when Zeuxis tried, he could not, as the curtains were included in Parrhasius’s painting—making Parrhasius the winner. In a 1964 seminar, the psychoanalyst and theorist Jacques Lacan (1901–1981) observed that the myth of the two painters reveals an interesting aspect of human cognition. While animals are attracted to superficial appearances, humans are enticed by the idea of things that are hidden.

With the superior understanding of perspective drawing achieved in the Renaissance, Italian painters of the late Quattrocento such as Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) began painting illusionistic ceiling paintings that employed perspective and techniques such as foreshortening to create the impression of greater space for the viewer below. Well-known examples are the Camera degli Sposi in Mantua and Antonio da Correggio‘s (1489–1534) Assumption of the Virgin in the Duomo of Parma.

Still life Violin and Music by William Michael Harnett

During the seventeenth century, Baroque trompe l’oeil murals often used this technique to combine actual architectural elements with an illusion. The dome and vault of the Church of St. Ignazio in Rome, painted by Andrea Pozzo, represented the pinnacle of illusion.


Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874

Trompe L’Oeil today is used to offer a fascinating overview of the range of styles and techniques of illusionistic painting in private residences and public spaces. It covers unusual techniques, such as anamorphism, and bold geometric patterns, as well as more traditional Trompe L’oeil subjects, including Pompeian-style wall paintings, classical arches and colonnades, landscapes.


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