Mind’s eye: contemporary trompe l’oeil painting

Trompe l’oeil a term coined in the 1600’s to describe paintings which imitated life to the point of visual deception. Artists who aimed for trickery and exemplified a mastery of technical skill, such as the American painter William Harnett, whose paintings of money were so convincing he was arrested for counterfeit. The painter’s desire to portray the world with mathematical accuracy and realism can be traced back thousands of years. An ancient Greek tale tells of a painter, Zeuxis (born around 464 BC) who produced a still life painting so convincing, that birds flew down from the sky to peck at the painted grapes. Though the term trompe l’oeil can describe hyper-realistic paintings of architecture, people, and landscape it is most associated with still life. During the 17th century, the golden age of Dutch painting, trompe l’oeil painting was particularly popular; and painters such as Samuel van Hoggstraten emulated mundane objects and materials such as paper with exquisite precision. In America the 19th and 20th centuries proved to be a prosperous time for trompe l’oeil painting. The paintings of John Haberle and John Fredrick Peto, featured below, of miscellaneous items tucked behind ribbons are particularly gorgeous and feel rather contemporary in comparison to more traditional still life paintings. Then there is Magritte’s infamous Ceci n’est pas une pipe painting which calls 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. However, unlike the early trompe l’oeil painters, Magritte introduced conceptual content beyond mere visual deception.

A resurgence of trompe l’oeil painting can be seen within the art world and following in the vein of Magritte many are rich in content and narrative. A selection of contemporary trompe l’oeil painters selected from the 2010 exhibition, Reality Checkat the Brandywine River Museum exemplifies how this style has translated into contemporary culture. These painters utilize compositional and technical conventions in reference to the golden age of trompe l’oeil painting, however it becomes apparent that there is more to these paintings than meets the eye.

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Renè Magritte, The Treachery of Images, oil on canvas, 1928-29

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Samuel van Hoogstraten, Still Life, oil on canvas, 1666-68

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John Haberle, A Bachelor’s Drawer, oil on canvas, 1890-94

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Johann Heinrich Füssli, Trompe-l’oeil, oil on canvas, 1750

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John Frederick Peto, Office Board, oil on canvas, 1885

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William Harnett, Mr. Hulings’ Rack Picture, oil on canvas, 1888

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Gregory West, Magic Beans, oil on panel, 2009 {mcbride gallery}

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Debra Teare, Persistence of Vision, oil on canvas, 2008 {Debra Teare}

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Robert C. Jackson, Target the Artist, oil on linen, 2009 {Robert C. Jackson}

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Sharon Moody, I, Who Have Crested the Currents of Space, oil on panel {Sharon Moody}

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Greg Mort, Karnac, oil on panel, 2008 {Greg Mort}

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Daniel Sprick, String Bird, oil on board, 2010 {Daniel Sprick}

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David Stevenson, Sightings: Fig. 1 Sasquatch, oil on canvas, {David Stevenson}

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Alan Magee, After Linnaeus, acrylic and oil on panel, 2006 {Brandywine River Museum}

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