October 19, 2011

The Art of Fooling the Eye

PARRHASIUS, it is said, entered into a pictorial contest with Zeuxis, who represented some grapes, painted so naturally that the birds flew towards the spot where the picture was exhibited. Parrhasius, on the other hand, exhibited a curtain, drawn with such singular truthfulness, that Zeuxis, elated with the judgment which had been passed upon his work by the birds, haughtily demanded that the curtain should be drawn aside to let the picture be seen. Upon finding his mistake, with a great degree of ingenuous candour he admitted that he had been surpassed, for that whereas he himself had only deceived the birds, Parrhasius had deceived him, an artist. - Pliny the Elder, The Natural History (circa 77 CE), Book 35, Chapter 36.

Bronzino's Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time detail, (c. 1545).
THE ability to trompe-l'œil ("deceive the eye" in French) was among the most highly prized artistic skills of Pliny's day, as evidenced by the many tales of Greek and Roman painters who boasted that their works were capable of fooling both man and beast. Although most figurative paintings offer an illusionistic "window" into a false reality to some degree, trompe-l'œil works take such verisimilitude to the level of optical illusion. The technique has been called a "triumph of the gaze over the eye."

My favorite examples of trompe-l'œil come from the Renaissance and Baroque periods (roughly speaking c. 1500 to c. 1700). European culture of this era displayed a strong fascination with the interplay between the beautiful and the hideous, the secret and the visible, and the concept of truth. In the arts, these preoccupations were expressed through masks, stage plays (whose actors often functioned as a metaphor for life in seventeenth-century poetry), and the mask-like, mysterious figures of Mannerist painters, most famously exemplified in the brilliant and vaguely creepy works of Agnolo Bronzino.

It is not surprising, then, that paintings which expressly sought to fool the eye (and the mind) by experimenting with the boundaries between the artificial and the real enjoyed a high level of popularity throughout the 1500 through 1700 period -- nor that these works could function as profound reflections on the nature of visible reality rather than as clever but gimmicky visual tricks, which is how we tend to approach trompe-l'œil today. Below are some of my favorite examples.
Domenico Remps, A Cabinet of Curiosity, 1690s.
I included this painting in an earlier post on curiosity cabinets, but wanted to revisit it here to show Remps' incredible ability to evoke illusionistic details. Notice, for instance, the reflection of the mirror in the upper left part of the cabinet, which, much like Jan van Eyck's famous Arnolfini Wedding, reveals the room in which it was painted:

Even as Remps points out the artificial nature of the painting by revealing the site of its creation, however, he also creates the illusion that an actual curiosity cabinet (rather than its mere representation on canvas) stands before us. This photo-realistic effect is achieved by clever touches such as the broken glass on the right hand cabinet window.

Portraying paintings within a painting, as Remps does here, was an extremely popular approach -- I suppose because it highlighted the painter's skill in multiple genres while also maximizing the visual delight of the viewer by offering several vistas and scenes at once (modern tastes tend to be more minimalist, but the seventeenth century was all about maximalism). The ultimate example of this that I have seen is David Tenier's incredibly over-the-top depiction of Archduke Leopold Wilhem's gallery:
David Teniers the Younger, ca. 1650, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his Gallery in Brussels, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
Another typical approach of the period which I find to be in many ways more interesting was that of including written texts in paintings. This technique is actually visible in a surprisingly large number of famous works (for instance, in Hans Holbein's famous portrait of a German merchant). It reached an extreme form, however, in paintings such as the following:
Jean-François de Le Motte, c. 1670, Still Life, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon.
A detail of the texts, which include a letter to the artist, a printed pamphlet and what appears to be an accounting
Cornelius Gijsbrechts (c.1630 - 1675), Trompe l'oeil, Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Gent, Belgium.
 Edward (or Edvart) Collier, Trompe l'Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements
on a Wooden Board
Incidentally, this last work offers a fascinating glimpse into the origins of the modern newspaper. One of the early "intelligencers" depicted here, the Apollo Anglicanus, can be previewed on Google Books. (Check out the blog Merciurius Politicus for more along these lines).
One interesting example of a painting of an illuminated manuscript can be found on Palazo Strozzi's online exhibit of trompe l'œil works:

Detail showing early sheet music of a psalm.
Finally, there is the related style of "quadratura," or painting architectural objects in an illusionistic manner. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Andrea Mantegna's playful and highly original ceiling fresco for the the Ducal Palace in Mantua, Italy, a detail from which heads this post:
Andrea Mantegna, fresco, Camera degli Sposi, Ducal Palace, Mantua, c. 1470.
An even more interesting off-shoot is anamorphosis, which employs distorted perspective to create coded images that only become understandable when viewed from the right angle. The most famous example of anamorphosis is to be found in Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (one of my favorite paintings), where a strange blur at the bottom of the painting...
...revolves into a skull when viewed from the right angle, designed to remind the viewer of the ever-presence of death:

I'll stop there. For those interested in learning more, the Palazzo Strozzi museum in Florence has an online exhibit on trompe l'œil with many beautiful images and some interesting thoughts on the subject.


Ana said...

You have an extremely captivating blog here. I look forward to reading more of your posts :) .

gdr said...

Bronzino corretto una volta / Bronzino corregido una vez

Anonymous said...

You may be intrested in this short film:
Great post!