At Large  September 27, 2022  Nia Bowers

Fooling the Eye: Trompe L’oeil in Art History


Still-Life, 1664 by Dutch painter Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten


A fascinating thing about our eyes is their ability to deceive us. From how our visual system and brain perceive an image in front of us, the optical illusion prevails. Imagine you stroll down a cement sidewalk and stumble upon what appears to be a massive gap. You’ll most likely back up, blink a few times, and suddenly that enormous ditch evolves into a complex sketch manifested out of colored chalk. A detailed drawing on a flat surface can easily pass as a three-dimensional piece if you stand in the right spot. In essence, that is the trickery of trompe l’oeil.

Trompe l’oeil, literally translated “to fool the eye” in French, is an artistic concept most popularly stemming from fifteenth-century Europe. Existing as a manner of illusionistic painting, trompe l’oeil quickly arose to prominence with its modern interpretation of perspective painting. The acts of drawing and painting while pondering perspective offered a revived method to view and interpret art as early as 1200 AD.


Andrea Pozzo, Trompe l’oeil dome painting ceiling of the Jesuitenkirche, Vienna, 1703.

In its earliest forms, trompe l’oeil held quite the appeal to the ancient Greeks who had only familiarized themselves with two-dimensional styles of painting. As time went on, fifteenth-century Italian painters would apply a specific category of trompe l’oeil to ceilings, naming it “di sotto in sù.” The favorable dome ceiling functioned as a canvas for trompe l’oeil. It became traditional in the Renaissance and Baroque eras as apropos of perspective-based techniques such as foreshortening.

Old masters, such as Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten, would utilize trompe l’oeil to create still-life works that resemble modern photographs. Throughout the sixteenth to the twentieth century, it became customary to apply trompe l’oeil to drawings of arbitrary, inanimate objects. John Frederick Peto, William Michael Harnett, and Salvador Dalí sit among many nineteenth and twentieth-century artists who produced the most within the trompe l’oeil genre.


John Pugh, Wonderground, depicting Pugh's signature "peeling wall" technique with layers of earth underneath

Trompe l’oeil is a form of super-realist art that typically remains within classic paintings. Entering deeper into modernity, the illusionist style exemplifies new and inventive ways to maintain its significance further without diverging from standard drawing practices. Contemporary artists employ trompe l’oeil on a variety of unconventional canvases. Something as seemingly simplistic as chalk on concrete offers a unique form of trompe l’oeil today. 

In the 21st century, trompe l’oeil continues to prove the importance of perspective within art. This type of illusionistic approach requires a rather skilled eye to trick the much more salubrious eye. In addition to perspective, placement and positioning play vital roles in each individual viewer's understanding of an optical illusion. Spreading this visually deceiving style of art across the side of a building or bus beckons any average viewer to give the artwork a second look.


Pere Borrell del Caso, Escaping Criticism, 1874

Producing a mural on a building out of colorful chalk that resembles a tunnel or a hole in the wall, is nothing short of extraordinary. Various artworks invoke sensations and sentiments that are often too complicated to explain with words. If we could describe the value of trompe l’oeil in unostentatious terms, this method naturally informs us that art can be magical.

About the Author

Nia Bowers


Nia Bowers is a freelance writer and native of North Carolina currently residing in Chapel Hill, NC. She is a 2020 graduate of Spelman College in Atlanta, GA with four years of archival experience and a natural bent for all things musical, historical, and literary.

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