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Still life Violin and Music by William Michael Harnett

Trompe-l'œil (French for "deceive the eye", pronounced ) is an art technique that uses realistic imagery to create the optical illusion that the depicted objects exist in three dimensions. Forced perspective is a comparable illusion in architecture.


  • History in painting 1
  • Perspective 2
  • Quadratura 3
  • In other art forms 4
  • Artists 5
  • Paintings 6
  • Murals 7
  • Sculptures 8
  • Architecture 9
  • Use in films 10
  • See also 11
  • Notes 12
  • External links 13

History in painting

Still life, Pompeii, c. 70 AD
Trompe-l'œil painting by Evert Collier
Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874

Though the phrase, which can also be spelled without the hyphen and ligature in English as trompe l'oeil,[1] originates in the Baroque period, when it refers to perspectival illusionism, trompe-l'œil dates much further back. It was (and is) often employed in murals. Instances from Greek and Roman times are known, for instance in Pompeii. A typical trompe-l'œil mural might depict a window, door, or hallway, intended to suggest a larger room.

A version of an oft-told ancient Greek story concerns a contest between two renowned painters. 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.


With the superior understanding of perspective drawing achieved in the Renaissance, Italian painters of the late Quattrocento such as Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) and Melozzo da Forlì (1438–1494), began painting illusionistic ceiling paintings, generally in fresco, that employed perspective and techniques such as foreshortening to create the impression of greater space for the viewer below. This type of trompe l'œil illusionism as specifically applied to ceiling paintings is known as di sotto in sù, meaning "from below, upward" in Italian. The elements above the viewer are rendered as if viewed from true vanishing point perspective. 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. Similarly, Vittorio Carpaccio (1460–1525) and Jacopo de' Barbari (c. 1440 – before 1516) added small trompe-l'œil features to their paintings, playfully exploring the boundary between image and reality. For example, a fly might appear to be sitting on the painting's frame, or a curtain might appear to partly conceal the painting, a piece of paper might appear to be attached to a board, or a person might appear to be climbing out of the painting altogether—all in reference to the contest of Zeuxis and Parrhasius. 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.


Perspective theories in the 17th century allowed a more fully integrated approach to architectural illusion, which when used by painters to "open up" the space of a wall or ceiling is known as quadratura. Examples include Pietro da Cortona's Allegory of Divine Providence in the Palazzo Barberini and Andrea Pozzo's Apotheosis of St Ignatius [4] on the ceiling of the Roman church of Sant'Ignazio.

Fresco with trompe l'œil dome painted on low vaulting, Jesuit Church, Vienna, by Andrea Pozzo, 1703

The mannerist and Baroque style interiors of Jesuit churches in the 16th and 17th century often included such trompe-l'œil ceiling paintings, which optically "open" the ceiling or dome to the heavens with a depiction of Jesus', Mary's, or a saint's ascension or assumption. An example of a perfect architectural trompe-l'œil is the illusionistic dome in the Jesuit church, Vienna, by Andrea Pozzo, which is only slightly curved but gives the impression of true architecture.

Trompe-l'œil paintings became very popular in Flemish and later in Dutch painting in the 17th century arising from the development of still life painting. The Flemish painter Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts created a chantourné painting showing an easel holding a painting. Chantourné literally means 'cutout' and refers to a trompe l'œil representation designed to stand away from a wall.[2] The Dutch painter Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten was a master of the trompe-l'œil and theorized on the role of art as the lifelike imitation of nature in his 1678 book, the Introduction to the Academy of Painting, or the Visible World (Inleyding tot de hooge schoole der schilderkonst: anders de zichtbaere werelt, Rotterdam, 1678).[3][4]

A fanciful form of architectural trompe-l'œil, quodlibet, features realistically rendered paintings of such items as paper knives, playing cards, ribbons, and scissors, apparently accidentally left lying around.[5]

Trompe-l'œil can also be found painted on tables and other items of furniture, on which, for example, a deck of playing cards might appear to be sitting on the table. A particularly impressive example can be seen at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, where one of the internal doors appears to have a violin and bow suspended from it, in a trompe l'œil painted around 1723 by Jan van der Vaardt.[6] The American 19th-century still-life painter William Harnett specialized in trompe-l'œil. In the 20th century, from the 1960s on, the American Richard Haas and many others painted large trompe-l'œil murals on the sides of city buildings, and from beginning of the 1980s when German Artist Rainer Maria Latzke began to combine classical fresco art with contemporary content trompe-l'œil became increasingly popular for interior murals. The Spanish painter Salvador Dalí utilized the technique for a number of his paintings.[7]

In other art forms

Trompe-l'œil, in the form of "forced perspective," has long been used in stage-theater set design, so as to create the illusion of a much deeper space than the actual stage. A famous early example is the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, with Vincenzo Scamozzi's seven forced-perspective "streets" (1585), which appear to recede into the distance.

Trompe-l'œil is employed in Donald O'Connor's famous "Running up the wall" scene in the film Singin' in the Rain (1954). During the finale of his "Make 'em Laugh" number he first runs up a real wall. Then he runs towards what appears to be a hallway, but when he runs up this as well we realize that it is a large trompe-l'œil mural. More recently, Roy Andersson has made use of similar techniques in his feature films.[8]

Another decedent of trompe-l'œil is matte painting, a technique in film production where parts of a complicated scene are painted on glass panels that are mounted in front of the camera during shooting. This technique was common before the advent of computer-generated imagery.

Fictional trompe-l'œil appears in many Looney Tunes, such as the Road Runner cartoons, where, for example, Wile E. Coyote paints a tunnel on a rock wall, and the Road Runner then races through the fake tunnel. This is usually followed by the coyote's foolishly trying to run through the tunnel after the road runner, only to smash into the hard rock-face. This sight gag was employed in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

In Chicago's Near North Side, Richard Haas used a 16-story 1929 apartment hotel converted into a 1981 apartment building for trompe-l'œil murals in homage to Chicago school architecture. One of the building's sides features the Chicago Board of Trade Building, intended as a reflection of the actual building two miles south.[9][10]

Trompe l'oeil, in the form of "illusion painting," is also used in contemporary interior design, where illusionary wall paintings experienced a Renaissance since around 1980. Significant artists in this field are the German muralist Rainer Maria Latzke, who invented, in the '90s, a new method of producing illusion paintings, the Frescography and the English artist Graham Rust.


Tromp-l'oeil Still-Life by Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (1627–1678); 1664
A Bachelor's Drawer by John Haberle (1890–94)
19th-century stained-glass window made for the Henry Gurdon Marquand's mansion in New York.

Old Masters

19th century and modern masters






Use in films

See also


  1. ^ For example by the National Gallery of Art, Washington
  2. ^ 'Illusion, Delusion, Collusion, and Perceptual Paradox', in: Michael Kubovy and Christopher Tyler, Psychology of Perspective and Renaissance Art
  3. ^ Susan Merriam, 'Seventeenth-century Flemish Garland Paintings: Still Life, Vision, and the Devotional Image', Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2012
  4. ^ Thijs Weststeijn, 'The Visible World: Samuel Van Hoogstraten's Art Theory and the Legitimation of Painting in the Dutch Golden Age', Amsterdam University Press, 2008
  5. ^ Curl, James Stevens (2006). A Dictionary of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (Paperback) (Second ed.). Oxford University Press. pp. 880 pages.  
  6. ^ van der Vaardt, Jan. "Violin and bow hanging from door" (Painting). Devonshire Collection. Chatsworth House UK: Bridgeman Art Library. Retrieved 15 April 2012. 
  7. ^ Dali and Postmodernism, p. PA74, at Google Books
  8. ^ Bateman, Conor (11 June 2015). "A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence – An Interview with Cinematographer István Borbás". 4:3. Retrieved 22 July 2015. 
  9. ^ "The City as Artifact". Chicago Historical Society. Retrieved 2007-08-05. 
  10. ^ by Richard Haas, 1980"Homage to the Chicago School,"Mural, . Chicago Historical Society. Retrieved 2007-08-05. 

External links

  • Trompe-l'Oeil museum in France
  • International Trompe l'Oeil Festival of Lodi – Italy
  • Deceptions and Illusions, National Gallery of Art exhibition on Trompe-l'œil paintings
  • A trompe l'oeil scene is forever
  • Trompe l'œil Tricks: Borges' Baroque Illusionism, essay by Lois Parkinson Zamora comparing trompe-l'œil to the literature of Borges
  •, More than 10 000 pictures and 1200 Outdoor murals of France and Europe
  • Fooling the eye Fooling The Eye: A history of trompe l'oeil.
  • Paris: Trompe-l'oeil, surréalisme urbain?, Avenue George V. Text and photography by Catherine-Alice Palagret
  • Painted Ladies, Canada's largest surviving concentration of this art style
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