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"Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting"
2002-10-13 until 2003-03-02
National Gallery of Art
Washington, DC, USA

The art of trompe l’oeil, from its origins in classical antiquity to its impact on 20th-century artists, will be presented with more than 100 works in the most comprehensive exhibition of the genre ever organized. The Gallery is the sole venue for this exhibition. Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting illustrates both the playful and intellectual nature of trompe l’oeil -- a depiction of an object, person or scene, which is so lifelike that it appears to be real. The exhibition includes paintings by Europeans Samuel van Hoogstraten, Louis-Léopold Boilly, and Carel Fabritius; and Americans Charles Willson Peale, William Harnett, and John Frederick Peto, among others; as well as a few mosaics and sculptures.

This exhibition is generously supported by Mary Jo and Robert L. Kirk. It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

"Throughout the ages, trompe l’oeil has always been one of the most popular genres while, at the same time, engaging some of the best artists in its challenges," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "Our generous supporters and lenders have made it possible for us to organize an exhibition of art that is both accomplished and amusing."


Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting presents paintings from different periods within each of its sections, showing the surprising persistence of some trompe l’oeil themes over the centuries. The exhibition opens with such works as Still Life with Fruit (3rd quarter of the first century AD), a fresco found in the dining room of the House of Julius Felix, at Pompeii, and among the last works is Eaten by Duchamp (1964), a collage of various materials -- actual remains of a meal eaten by modern master Marcel Duchamp -- mounted on wood, by the Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri.

In its Prologue, Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting establishes the literary and visual sources of trompe l’oeil, with works of art inspired by ancient legends. One of the most famous legends comes from Hellenistic times and tells about Zeuxis, so accomplished a painter that birds flew up to his painted grapes, and his rival Parrhasios, who bested him by painting a curtain that Zeuxis tried to draw aside to see what was hidden behind it. Among the works in this section are The Twins, Chianti Grapes (1885) by George Henry Hall and the Portrait of Filippo Archinto (c. 1558) by Titian.

The exhibition is then divided into six sections, beginning with the Temptation for the Hand, where one of the traditional devices used by trompe l’oeil artists is introduced -- images of letters, prints, and other flat objects that appear to rest on the picture surface, as in Trompe l’Oeil (1703) by Edward Collyer and Music Stand by William Sidney Mount.

The following sections of the exhibition -- Things on the Wall; Niches, Cupboards, Cabinets; and In and Out of the Picture -- focus respectively on three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface, as in The Old Violin (1886) by William Harnett; three-dimensional images on a three-dimensional space, as in the Cabinet of Curiosities (late 17th century) by Domenico Remps; and blurring the boundary between real and fictitious space, as in Escaping Criticism (1874) by Pere Borrell del Caso.

In the next section, The Painting as Object, it is not what is in the painting that is fooling the eye, but the whole painting, as an object, as in John Haberle’s Torn in Transit (1890-1895) and Antonio Cioci’s The Painter's Easel (c. 1775-1780), among others.

The last section, The Object as Art, investigates the legacy of the art of trompe l’oeil to 20th-century artists. It includes works such as The Two Mysteries (1966) by René Magritte, Stretcher Frame with Cross Bars III (1968) by Roy Lichtenstein, White Brillo Boxes (1964) by Andy Warhol, and Security Guard (1990) by Duane Hanson. Although these 20th-century works of art are not trompe l’oeil, they engage with many of the genre’s intellectual traditions.

Wallerant Vaillant
Trompe l'Oeil, Board with Letters, 1658
oil on paper on canvas
Gemeldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

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