Politics & Policy

Art of Deception

Trompe l'Oeil at the National Gallery.

A fascinating collection is on display at the National Gallery of Art.

There’s a mahogany clock draped in white cloth and a handful of plump black grapes. There’s a garland of flowers slightly hidden by a turquoise silk valance. A framed piece of broken glass reveals a portfolio of drawings; a card rack is pinned to the brim with business cards, stamped envelopes, and pieces of paper. There’s even a security guard, but this one won’t warn you not to touch the art.

The items on display here are not so much real life but imitations of life — depictions of objects, people, or scenes so lifelike that they appear to be the real thing. It’s called trompe l’oeil — “fool the eye” — and there’s a lot of it going on in Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting.

“The discovery of perspective in 15th-century Italy and advancements in the science of optics in 17th-century Netherlands enabled artists to render objects and spaces with eye-fooling exactitude,” notes the show’s wall text. “The moment of deception, however, is brief… Both witty and serious, trompe l’oeil is a game artists play with spectators to raise questions about the nature of art and perception.”

The artists on display here are no fools. Over 100 European and American artists are included in the exhibit; some by the names of Titian, Murillo, Picasso, and John Frederick Peto.

The show opens with a prologue featuring the famous Hellenistic legend of Zeuxis. “Zeuxis painted a boy carrying grapes, and when the birds flew down to settle on them, he was vexed with his own work, and came forward saying… I have painted the grapes better than the boy, for had I been perfectly successful with the latter the birds must have been afraid.” Displayed are works (inspired by this legend, and others) by such artists as Juan Fernández El Labrador, Louis-Léopold Boilly, Gerrit Dou, and the American painter George Henry Hall.

The remaining works on view are divided into six sections, beginning with “Temptation for the Hand.” Here, examples of letters, prints, and other interesting flat objects from everyday life illustrate how artists painted objects so that they would appear to rest on the picture plane. Consider “Portrait of a Merchant” (c. 1530, by the Dutch painter Jan Gossaert, one of the finest examples the museum has selected. It’s a picture of a man surrounded by his personal clutter and the tricks of his trade — coins, quills, and what look like important papers. Again the “temptation for the hand” is to reach out and touch the objects in the painting as if they were real. Another particularly ingenious work in this section is “Which is Which?” (c. 1890-1893) by the self-taught American artist Jefferson David Chalfant. Here the trompe l’oeil effect is more about trickery than temptation. Chalfant pasted an authentic postage stamp of Abraham Lincoln next to a picture of an Abraham Lincoln stamp he had painted. Below the two he mounted a piece of newsprint that read: “[gen]uine. The question, of course, is: Which is which?”

The next three sections of the show focus on the use of perspective to create the illusion of something hanging on a wall, sitting in a nook, or coming out of a window. Here we have a bit more of the same: dead birds, scraps of paper, and more household objects easily found in curio cabinets or behind cupboard doors. It’s in the section “In and Out of the Picture” that we are offered a bit more — the blurring of real and fictitious boundaries on the canvas. As the critic and painter Leon Battista Alberti believed, a painting can also become a window through which the observer views a scene represented behind the pane. Two remarkable examples of the “window” effect include Murillo’s “Two Women at a Window” (c. 1655-1660) and Pere Borrell del Caso’s “Escaping Criticism” (1874). There is also a delightful painting by the little-known British artist Walter Goodman called “The Print Seller’s Window” (after 1882). Crammed into a small canvas are a dizzying array of small objects including photographs, books, a china cup, coins in a porcelain dish, a magnifying glass, a strand of pearls, and small Egyptian vase.

The final two sections of the show explore paintings as objects and objects as art. As the Gallery notes, since the 15th century, many artists enhanced the trickery quality of their illusions by including images of tools of their craft — palettes, paintbrushes, and the like. Some artists even showed part of the painting torn back to reveal the backside of the canvas. Take, for instance, the 15th-century “Virgin and Child with Angels” with its torn wrappings, or John Haberle’s “Torn in Transit” (1890-1895). Both remind viewers they are seeing a work of art, and not reality itself.

Art Notes

Deceptions and Illusions will be at the National Gallery of Art, East Building, through March 2, 2003. The show will not travel. All pictures courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.