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Trompe l´oeil in French, meaning Deceive the Eye in English, is a painting technique used in Art so as to create an optical illusion where objects have depth and perspective. The use of perspective and shades make objects appear in three dimensions. Distant views, skies, open windows have been created by adding fake columns and ornaments. The artist´s intention is to make the audience believe that the objects are solid and real. This painting technique creates an illusion that generates joy to the observer.


Gerard Houckgeest, Interior of the Old Church in Delft
Gerard Houckgeest, Interior of the Old Church in Delft

This technique incorporates different types of objects or structure. Fake backgrounds with fireplaces or instruments left by chance are simulated. Elements unconnected with the artwork are included, this gives a sensation of reality at the same time. Artists used wet plaster, added pigments to create the three dimensions effect. Likewise, the faux finishing which involves adding streaks with wood granules to achieve said effect.

Historic evolution

This is an ancient technique. However, realistic artworks were only acknowledged by the year 1800.

Antique Greece and Roman Empire In 460 BC Greece, a contest between two painters was carried out, one of them called Zeuxis performed an artwork of a tavern, and it was so realistic that birds tried to eat the grapes. Once Zeuis´s work was finished, his counterpart Parrhasius asked Zeuis to evaluate his artwork for which Zeius asked that curtains are drawn first. Since it was something impossible to do because these curtains belong to the painting, which achieved such a significant impact to the jury who appointed Parrhasius as the winner. In the Antique Rome and in Pompei a mural could replicate a window or a door to the effect to recreating a room by using wet plaster to give a sensation of depth.

The Renaissance

The artist Miguel Ángel Buonarroti (1475- 1564) was architect, sculptor and painter. Among its artwork we can mention the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where he represents his interpretation of the biblical Genesis. Miguel Ángel performed the frescoes in four years, which were made from fresh lime, using wet plaster. Colors were applied when walls were still wet which made colors change once dried. Frescoed painting was definitive, the scene approached had to be finished on the same day. He painted angels and biblical characters, adding deceiving columns and beams.

The artist Leonardo Da Vinci (1492-1519) considered a great visionary, painter, sculptor and engineer made contributions to painting techniques such as the blending technique which is the overlay of painting coats achieving blurry outlines and contrast between illuminated and dark areas.

In his mural painting the Last Supper where Leonardo painted about a religious theme, Jesus can be seen in the middle of the composition surrounded by his apostles and at the back we find a window, which stresses the perspective. This was a frescoed painting performed by Leonardo using oil and painted on Gesso (mixture of plaster and chalk) which compromised its durability, since with time this painting started to peel off.

Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506) was a renowned artist during the Renaissance. He did Frescoed painting on ceilings, and he stands out by using perspective and   foreshortening used to represent figures perpendicularly to the canvas or paper, there a part of the figure is twisted with respect to the rest of the body, giving the illusion of spaciousness to the audience. He is one of the most renowned artists during the Renaissance, among his most significant artworks we can mention the Frescoes on The Ovetari Chapel in Italy and the Camera degli Sposi (“Bridal Chamber” which is a portrait of a traditional family and at the back of the painting an oculus to deceive the eye which simulates the existence of an open sky.

In the XVII century, breakthroughs of the perspective theories, enabled the artists of that time to use this technique to open ceiling and wall painting which was call   Quadratura, this can be observed in the paintings of Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709) at the Sant’Ignazio Jesuitical Church in Rome. The artist painted lateral walls and ceiling by making it appear vaulted when in fact the ceiling was flat and populated by suspended figures on top.  In the Jesuitical churches  in the XVI and XVII centuries, artistic painters use the trompe l’oeil technique on ceilings and domes where they represented the images of Jesus, Mary and saints.

Flemish Painters

The Deceive the Eye style reached its apogee with the use of this technique by Flemish painters of the XV to XVIII century, who created three dimensional optical illusions in their artworks. Objects seemed to pop out of the frames and from open furniture and its representations were so real which prompt the audience to take these objects from the paintings. These artists amazed the audience by the realism of details and the innovative use of oil painting, applying the new techniques which enabled them to achieve said illusions with versatility.

Among artists who stand out we can mention , Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts (1630-1675) Flemish painter who is characterized by painting taverns and vanity tables in a false perspective by representing several objects such as letters, books, hunting objects and musical instruments. In its artwork called The Reverse of a Framed Painting, he represents the back side of a painting, with its wooden frame and canvas, where he adds the number 36, catalogue index to be auctioned.

Samuel Van Hoogstraten (1627-1678) Dutch painter (Baroque golden period) is renowned by the use of  the Deceive the Eye-Trompe L’oeil technique in his artwork “Old Man Looking through a Window” where a head is seen standing out of a window. In the Jesuitical churches of the XVI and XVII centuries the trompe l´oeil technique was applied to ceilings and domes where images of Jesus, Mary and the Saints where represented. This technique reached its apogee with painters from the Netherlands in the XVII century and reflected in the XIX and XX centuries.

At Present

Wall-Joelle Ortet
Wall-Joelle Ortet

Contemporary artists use Deceive the Eye in murals on public spaces, street posters, sculptures performed in public spaces, and play freely with illusionary images, evoking historical facts, constantly changing our visual reality. This technique is also applied to tables, differences pieces of furniture and decor. It is used in theatrical set designs by realizing interior murals thus creating the illusion to be in a more spacious and deeper place. This technique can also be found in street artists who design and perform works called Pavement Art which have a brief duration since these tend to disappear from streets after a while. The artifact in the Deceive the Eye- Trompe L’oeil is to deceive the eye and how to discover the true reality. This is the intention of the artist, to deceive the audience by substituting reality for illusion. This Art generates joy from deception of the eye and optical illusion.