by Lauren Stewart-Ebert
Tromp l’oeil is a centuries old style of painting meant to, literally, “trick the eye”.
An ancient Greek story dating to about 500 BC tells of a contest between two famous painters of the time, Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted a still life so real, birds flew to the canvas to peck at the grapes. He then told Parrhasius to unveil his painting, which was hidden behind a pair of tattered curtains. Parrhasius won. His painting was not hidden by the curtains but was the curtains.
Some of the oldest surviving examples of tromp l’oeil are found in the remains of Pompeii, Italy. Typical tromp l’oeil of this period might depict windows or doors looking onto beautiful landscapes or columns and paneling enhancing the richness of the decor.
During the Middle Ages a decrease in wealth and stability led to a drop off in artistic achievement. It was not until the Renaissance when perspective drawing was fully explored and painters once again created stunning tromp l’oeil works.
Italian fresco painters of the 1400’s experimented with foreshortening on ceilings, referred to as “di sotto in sù” (from below), a technique which creates the illusion of greater space.
An early example of this architectural trompe l’oeil can be found in the Santa Maria presso San Satiro church in Milan, Italy. Constructed in the late 1400’s, the church’s proximity to an existing road meant the choir could not be built as deep as originally planned. Instead, architects Giovanni Antonio Amadeo and Donato Bramante created a richly detailed theatrical apse in bas-relief. The illusion was a success. Although the space appeared to be several feet deep, it actually only measured a mere 38 inches.
One of the most spectacular examples of this style is found at the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola at Campus Martius in Rome, Italy. Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709), a Jesuit brother, painted the massive fresco which stretches the length of the ceiling.
Although the ceiling is flat, Pozzo’s painting creates the effect of a barrel vaulted ceiling.
A whimsical type of architectural trompe l’oeil called “quodlibet” (whatever pleases) features life like paintings of everyday objects in real settings.
At Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, England, a violin and bow appear to be hanging on the back of a door.
Modern examples of trompe l’oeil are found in the works of body painter Joanne Gair and sidewalk artist Julian Beever.
These “tricks of the eye” have delighted people for centuries. Although the format and subject matter may change, the surprise effect continues to amuse…