The Alchemy of Contemporary Trompe L'oeil

June 11, 2016

In a 1964 seminar, the psychologist and theorist Jacques Lacan observed an interesting aspect about the human condition, and he spoke of none other than the trompe l’oeil art technique. He remarked that while animals are attracted to superficial appearances, humans are enticed by the idea of things that are hidden. What is in fact trompe l'oeil, and how does it suggest such an analysis about the human spirit? Even though the term originates from the Baroque age, the phrase, which in French means to deceive the eye, dates further back to the classical period of Greek and Roman art. It describes an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create an optical illusion, which depicts the object as if existing in 3D. Few examples that date from Greek and Roman times show the use of this technique for mural or fresco paintings. The typical mural, which uses Trompe L'oeil, might show a window, door, or hallway intended to suggest a larger room or a sense of depth on a flat surface. As if by magic, another room would appear, an object would fall out of the picture’s frame, and the eye would be fooled into believing that something is there when in fact it isn’t.

trompe l'oeil
Left: Pere Borrel del Caso - Escaping criticism / Right: Edward Colyer - Still Life. Images via

A Play with Perspective and Space

This trickery of the eye has concerned artists since the beginning of time. The myth describing the origin of Trompe L'oeil speaks about the rivalry between two painters, Zeuxis, and Parrhasius. It is said that Zeuxis produced a still life painting so convincing that birds flew down to peck at the painted grapes. Parrhasius asked Zeuxis to judge his painting that was behind a pair of curtains in his studio and once Zeuxis tried to pull back the curtains, he realized that they were painted. The play with illusions and the space depth, believe it or not, was also applied in some of the most famous churches and religious fresco paintings of the Renaissance. The illusionistic ceiling paintings used perspective and technique such as foreshortening to create the impression of the greater space for the viewer bellow. The widespread fascination with the perspective drawings of the Renaissance period and the numerous still-life paintings of Flemish and Dutch artists in the late 17th century helped Trompe L'oeil to develop throughout the art history. Even though most of the works of the past, which employed this illusionistic method, are not alive today, its application and ideas have developed through time. Such focus on the illusion and the distorting of the space, where the flat surface carries a sense of movement or a door into another world, is just one element of the trompe l'oeil, which is seen still today as applied by various contemporary artist of both street and urban art movement and painters and sculptures of the more ‘traditional’ school of thought.

trompe l'oeil
William Harnett - Five Dollar Bill.Image via

The Uncanny Realistic Objects and Paintings Today

There are numerous examples of the authors in the past that aimed for trickery and exemplified a mastery of technical skill, which resulted in some of the most successful and memorable paintings of realism. The realistic, or better to say hyper-realistic production of the five-dollar bill note by the American painter William Harnett resulted in charges of forgery against the painter whose Trompe L'oeil paintings are one of the most famous ones in the art world. This tradition of the realistic still life paintings, which trick the eye into observing something as real, and not an illusion, and the fooling of the eye with the astounding realism have taken on new dimensions among the contemporary artists today. We are all witness to the rise in hyper-realistic works, which often make us gasp and feel that this must be a photograph and only after the close inspection we are made aware of the brush stroke. Alongside the amazing hyper-realistic contemporary paintings, are also memorable pieces of miniature sculptures, or miniature diorama, which showcase some of the most ordinary objects rendered by the use of the most amazing technical skill.

In the past, Trompe L'oeil was a measurement into the painter’s skill but as we all know, the skill is not the only element required to make a painting interesting. It was, in fact, the famous Surrealist artist Rene Magritte who introduced the conceptual content beyond the mere visual deception. His successful painting The Treachery of Images calls for attention to the painting itself, its flatness and inability to be the object in reality, as well as the painter’s ability as a magician to create an illusion.

trompe l'oeil
JR - JR au Louvre, installation view, Paris. Image via

Trompe L'oeil and the Streets

Following the path of Magritte’s ideas about illusions and painting, currently we are also witnesses of the different approaches to the illusion art. Often, we are made aware of the rise of the art that fools the eye by the numerous examples of street art and urban art. Frequently humorous, many murals on the streets play with the fusion of the reality and the painted image, as is the case in the work of the famous street artist JR and his project JR au Louvre. With this project, the artist is making the famous glass pyramid disappear by covering its façade with his famous black and white photographs. This play with reality inspires many other artists to create amazing 3D drawings or chalk paintings on the streets that challenge the perception of the space and make us wonder what world do we really occupy.

As mentioned in the beginning, the unknown often intrigues the human spirit, and we are all drawn towards the art that will shift our perception of the reality. The play with the illusion and space, which started many centuries ago, and whose developments we trace through early fresco paintings, murals, still-life, and modern art movements, such as Surrealism, Op art, and Hyper-Realism, is ongoing still. Its application we can also see in interior design, and some of the most inspirational architectural results as well. The restless human spirit will always look for new ways to extract the best and transform the worst in life, and to transcend the ordinary to new dimensions.

Editors’ Tip: Trompe l'Oeil: Murals and Decorative Wall Painting

In this article, we have only covered examples of the art technique Trompe L'oeil applied in the fine art , but this book will provide you with a glimpse, and few of the best examples, of the technique used in applied arts. The decorative murals of interior design, architectural design works and paintings that transcend into another reality, are all mentioned in this book, which is an inspirational guide to the fascinating examples merging design, the art of illusion and decoration.

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image: Rene Magritte – The Treachery of Images. Image via

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