When video games include entire fantasy worlds, trompe-l'œil painting is obsolete. But it has delighted viewers from prehistory to now.
Andrea Pozzo's painted ceiling in the Church of St. Ignazio, 1690. Note how the figures blur the line between the walls and the ceiling.
Pliny the Elder told a story of a throwdown between two famous painters of antiquity, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis’s painting of grapes was so realistic that birds flew down to peck at them. Parrhasius then asked Zeuxis to pull back the drape concealing his painting, which revealed that the drape itself was a painted illusion. “I have deceived the birds, but Parrhasius has deceived Zeuxis,” the latter admitted. Besides implying that the artists were two pompous asses, the story hints that realism was a primary goal of Greek painting. In turn it was a primary goal of the 18th and 19th century painters who delighted in repeating Pliny’s tale.
Andrea Mantegna’s ceiling panel in the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace, Mantua, c. 1465-1474.
Trompe-l'œil fits in the niche between fine painting and the decorative arts. It includes the lowly, unsung painters who put corbels and arches where no such architecture exists, as well as the work of known masters. We have no idea when the first trompe-l'œil was done. The rock-relief fronts at Petra are a form of trompe-l'œil, as are the mosaics at Herculaneum. So are the faux finishes you can apply with a kit from Home Depot.
The great age of faux painting was the Renaissance, when artists couldn’t stop playing with their new toy, perspective. Andrea Mantegna’s ceiling panel of the Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace in Mantua uses single-point perspective and foreshortening. He has painted an oculus through which putti, people and a bird are looking down at the viewers.
Church interior, c. 1654, by Gerard Houckgeest
As knowledge of perspective increased, trompe-l’œil ceilings grew more complex. The goal was the same as that of the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages: to dissolve the barrier at the top of a room. Ceilings were painted as if they were continuations of the walls. Both ceiling and walls were enhanced with figures. This required a technique called perspectival anamorphosis, in which objects are distorted in such a way as to be visible only from a certain vantage point.
Hans Holbein used this technique on a famous canvas called The Ambassadors. It contains a skull that has to be seen from the extreme edge of the canvas. That was clever and difficult. Jesuit brother Andrea Pozzo used the same technique on ceilings and walls high off the floor. That was several steps past clever, since he couldn’t exactly step back and see whether his illusion was working or not. I can figure out how most things are done in painting; I cannot figure out how he managed to calculate the foreshortening required to make figures on a wall appear to be floating in space.
The Faithful Colt, 1890, by William Harnett
Trompe-l’œil had one more burst of popularity, in America at the end of the 19th century. Paradoxically, this coincided with the rise of a new technology that would mean the death of painterly realism: photography. But even with that, trompe-l’œil returns now and again. What are Andy Warhol’s soup cans if not an homage to the art of fooling the eye?