Trompe l'oeil in Fine Art
(Deceives the Eye) Visual Illusion in Painting: Characteristics, History.

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Fake dome painted on a low vaulted
ceiling by the Jesuit painter/architect
Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709). A superb
example of optical illusion.

Trompe l'oeil in Fine Art Painting


Definition & Characteristics
Giotto's Fly
Origins and History
Early Renaissance Trompe l'oeil
High Renaissance and Mannerist Trompe l'oeil
Baroque Trompe l'oeil (c.1600-1700)
Rococo Trompe l'oeil (c.1700-75)
Modern Trompe l'oeil
Other Painting Techniques

Escaping Criticism (1874)
By Pere Borrell del Caso (1835-1910).

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Trompe l'oeil: Definition & Characteristics

In fine art, the term Trompe l'oeil refers to the technique of visual illusion, whereby the eye of the viewer is deceived into thinking that a painting is actually a three-dimensional object, rather than merely a two-dimensional representation of it. This type of artistic optical illusion is commonly seen in easel, mural and architectural paintings, as well as in sculpture and architecture. Most trompe l'oeil devices are set in realistic true-to-life imagery and are based on confusion caused by the deceptive application of the rules of linear perspective. The term itself is a French expression, meaning "deceives the eye," and was first coined in the 17th century, during the era of Baroque art.


Although "trompe l'oeil" embraces all illusionary artistic devices across painting, sculpture, architecture and the decorative arts, the two most common types are (1) architectural painting (quadratura) that creates the optical illusion of (usually) higher ceilings; and (2) easel painting that creates the visual illusion of depth in the picture - either receding into the distance, or jutting out towards the viewer.

A View Down a Corridor (1662)
By Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-78).
See the incredible illusion of depth
in the picture plane.

Movement In Squares (1961).
By Bridget Riley

Giotto's Fly

Most trompe l'oeil art is humorous - a game artists play with observers to raise questions about the nature of art and perception, as illustrated by the story about the famous Florentine painter Giotto (1267-1337), which appears in Giorgio Vasari's celebrated book Lives of the Artists (1550). One day, Giotto decided to play a trick on the older artist Cimabue (1240-1302), to whom he was apprenticed. So when the latter's back was turned Giotto painted a tiny fly onto the mural which his master was painting. Cimabue then went beserk trying to brush away the fly, before he realized it was an illusion.

Origins and History

The use of trompe-l'oeil dates back almost as far as painting itself. The best known example from Classical Antiquity comes from Roman art and was unearthed as part of a number of archeological discoveries at Pompeii. Scientists uncovered Roman villas decorated with a mass of mural painting designed to look like wall alcoves, intricate ceiling plasterwork, double-doors and even windows overlooking lush gardens.

Early Renaissance Trompe l'oeil

The more realistic the painting, the more deceptive the Trompe l'oeil. Not surprisingly therefore, artists only began to excel at this form of illusionism once they had mastered the application of linear perspective, and were able to create true-to-life paintings. This occurred during the Early Renaissance in Italy. One of the first instances of illusionistic Christian art from this time was the picture of a cavernous chapel which forms the basis for The Holy Trinity (1428) by Masaccio. Later quattrocento painters like Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) - pioneer of the illusionist technique known as foreshortening (see his picture Lamentation over the Dead Christ) - and Melozzo da Forli (1438-94) - inventor of di sotto in su (an extreme form of foreshortening, meaning "from below, upward") - began painting illusionistic ceiling frescoes, giving the impression of greater (often soaring) space to the spectator below. Celebrated examples from Early Renaissance painting include: Mantegna's Camera degli Sposi in the Ducal Palace at Mantua.


Meantime, Flemish painting of the 15th century led the rest of the world in its naturalism, and Flemish painters (Memling, Van der Goes, Bosch) were among the first to incorporate trompe l'oeil devices in their paintings. An excellent illustration is the Netherlandish Renaissance tradition of painting the outer panels of an altarpiece - which typically featured the figures of Saints or Donors - in grisaille, in order to create the illusion of sculptures set in wall recesses. See The Portinari Altarpiece (c.1475, Uffizi Gallery, Florence) by Hugo van der Goes.

High Renaissance and Mannerist Trompe l'oeil

The Venetian painters Vittorio Carpaccio (1460–1525) and Jacopo de Barbari (c.1440-1516) were the first artists of the Renaissance in Venice to add small trompe-l'oeil features to their paintings, whimsically exploring the boundary between image and reality. A fly might appear to have settled on the frame of the painting, or a fake curtain might appear to conceal part of the picture, or someone might appear to be clambering out of the picture frame altogether.

The High Renaissance also witnessed the first examples of the ultimate architectural trompe l'oeil - known as Quadratura. Quadratura is a form of illusionistic fresco painting in which a fake domed roof is painted onto a flat or slightly domed ceiling, thus creating an imaginary space above and beyond its actual confines. This type of trompe l'oeil architectural painting, - like di sotto in su ceiling decorations - requires extremely good visual-spatial skills, and a mastery of linear perspective. Because of this, many painters employed specialist quadratura designers - called quadraturisti - to assist them. Examples from High Renaissance painting include: the Sala delle Prospettive fresco (c.1517) at the Villa Farnesina by Baldessare Peruzzi (1481-1536); and the Assumption of the Virgin (Parma Cathedral) (1524-30) by Correggio - leader of the Parma School of painting (1520-50).

Illusionist art was further developed during the era of Mannerism. Examples of quadratura taken from Mannerist painting include: the Villa Barbaro frescoes (c.1561) at Treviso by the Venetian colourist Paolo Veronese (1528-88). See also still life trompe l'oeil by Juan Sanchez Cotan (1560-1603), such as his Quince, Cabbage, Melon and Cucumber (c.1602, San Diego Museum of Art).

Baroque Trompe l'oeil (c.1600-1700)

Illusionistic art, especially quadratura and other architectural devices, achieved its apogee during the period of Baroque art. Famous examples of taken from Baroque painting include: Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus (1602), in which he tries to project his subjects through the canvas and out into our own space; the Assumption of the Virgin (1625-7) on the underside of the dome of the church of S. Andrea della Valle, by Giovanni Lanfranco (1582-1647); the Allegory of Divine Providence, in the Palazzo Barberini, by Pietro da Cortona (1596-1669); and Triumph and Apotheosis of St Ignatius (1691-4, San Ignazio, Rome) by the great Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709), perhaps the greatest of all quadraturisti. Illusionism also spread to the Spanish colony of Naples (then the second biggest city in Europe, after Paris) during the mid-17th century: please see: Neapolitan School of Painting (c.1600-56). For full-blown illusionism in Naples, see: Neapolitan Baroque (c.1650-1700).

Meantime, in the Netherlands, the meticulously realistic genre painting of the Dutch Realist School, during the 17th century, gave ample scope for illusionism. One of the more famous exponents - noted for the exceptional linear perspective of his interiors - was Samuel Van Hoogstraten (1627-78). Works like View down the Corridor (1662, Dyrham Park, UK) create a wonderful optical illusion of great depth in the picture plane. See also his Trompe l'oeil (1666-78, Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe).

Rococo Trompe l'oeil (c.1700-75)

The most outstanding works of 18th century illusionism, taken from Rococo art include: the Palazzo Labia frescoes (1745) in Venice, and the celebrated Wurzburg Residence frescoes (1750-3) in the state dining room (Kaiseraal) and the ceiling of the Grand Staircase (Trepenhaus) at the Wurzburg Palace in Germany - by Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), aided by his exceptional quadraturista Gerolamo Mengozzi Colonna (c.1688–1766).

Modern Trompe l'oeil

Surrealism was the most illusionistic of all 20th century art movements. One of its most famous exponents of trompe l'oeil painting was the Belgian classical painter Rene Magritte (1898-1967), who produced a number of illusionist images including: The Human Condition (1933, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, and The Listening Room (1933, private collection).

Other modern artists that have utilized trompe l'oeil imagery include Pop artists like Andy Warhol (1928-1987) (Brillo Boxes of 1964); photorealism exponents like Richard Estes (b.1932) (paintings of shop fronts, diners, telephone booths); hyperrealist sculptors like Duane Hanson (1925-96), John De Andrea (b.1941) and Carole Feuerman (b.1945), with their ultra-naturalistic human figures made out of polyester resin and fibreglass.

For a postmodernist example of trompe l'oeil body painting, see also Joanne Gair's nude Portrait of Demi Moore (1992) published in Vanity Fair, Aug 1992.

Optical Art (active 1960s)

"Optical art" or "retinal art", Op-Art for short (a variant of Kinetic art) was a specific painting movement based on geometric designs that create feelings of movement or vibration. Originating in the work of the kinetic artist Victor Vasarely (1908-97), and also from Abstract Expressionism, it was popularized largely through the work of British painter Bridget Riley (b.1931).

Other contemporary trompe l'oeil artists include Robert Gober, Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Maurizio Cattelan, Guillaume Bijl, Christop Buchel, Hiroshi Sugimoto, Janet Cardiff, Ron Mueck, and Turner Prize-Winner Mark Wallinger.


A major exhibition entitled Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil Painting, was held (October 2002 to March 2003) at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC. More than 100 works were shown - including paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, and mosaics - by artists like Samuel van Hoogstraten, Louis-Leopold Boilly, Cornelis Gijsbrechts, Charles Willson Peale, John Frederick Peto, William Harnett and Duane Hanson.

Illusionistic paintings can be seen in many of the best art museums around the world, and in a number of Jesuit churches in Italy and elsewhere.

Other Painting Methods

For more illusionistic painting techniques, see:

Leonardo's technique to achieve imperceptible graduations in tone.
The application of light and shadow to suggest volume in figures.
Caravaggio's method of handling light/shadow for dramatic effect.
Application of layers of paint to create a thick texture on a painting surface.

• For related terms, see: Painting Glossary.
• For more about painting techniques, see: Homepage.

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