A Closer Look at the Visual Illusions Artists Have Used to Deceive the Eye
One of the most traditional ways to appraise a work of art is to ask just how faithfully it reproduces the natural world. This has led artists throughout history to employ realist techniques in order to explore the nature of art and perception—and to deceive their viewers. Over the centuries, evolving technological and theoretical advances—from the discovery of perspective to the invention of photography—have altered the character and intentions of illusionism in art, though the tension between fiction and reality has remained throughout.
It can seem difficult to define a boundary between virtuosic verisimilitude and
In his Naturalis Historia (ca. 77–79), the Roman author Pliny the Elder relays a now-infamous tale about a competition between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, the two leading artists in ancient Greece. According to the myth, the artists, who lived in the 4th century B.C.E., challenged each other to a contest to determine who was the greater painter. When Zeuxis unveiled his
In the same text, Pliny provides one of the earliest accounts of Greco-Roman painting, namely the perfectly preserved frescoes excavated at Pompeii and Herculaneum (which constitute some of the only surviving examples of ancient painting) show an early interest in perspective and anatomy—as well as art’s illusory possibilities. Artists decorated the villas with exterior scenes of lavish gardens (as in the Villa of Livia) or fantastical cityscapes (see the cubiculum from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, reconstructed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). Dwellers could imagine themselves not in a four-walled room, but an infinite world, thanks to the possibilities of painting. Notably, artists of this time period also produced shockingly modern still lifes, a genre that would become a standard-bearer of optical experiments for thousands of years.
The naturalistic techniques developed by the Greco-Romans were all but lost during the Dark Ages. Paintings became didactic tools; medieval European artists adopted two-dimensional representations of religious scenes, the flattened perspective and broad fields of color clearly relaying biblical stories to a largely illiterate audience. In the 14th century, however, the nascent
In The Lives of the Artists (1550),
While Giotto reestablished naturalism in Italian painting, subsequent quattrocento figures built on his legacy. In the early 15th century,
It was in Northern Europe during this time, however, that naturalism was taken to stunning extremes. Artists from the Low Countries perfected painting in oils, a new medium that allowed them to simulate the real world on canvas with ever-greater precision and clarity. Flemish painters like
Yet it is the portrait that most defines the
Trompe l’oeil quickly became a sought-after genre in its own right. Northern and Italian artists throughout the 17th and 18th centuries produced self-consciously illusionistic works with the sole intent of offering cunning and complex effects. The still life re-gained prominence as a popular genre for artists to depict a range of common objects in tactile, eye-defying detail. Scenes showing earmarked mementoes pinned to letter boards, exotic wunderkammer, or the bric-a-brac in an opened drawer became de rigueur.
Deeply influenced by the ideals of the Reformation, Flemish artists during the
Artists also harkened back to Zeuxis and Parrhasius’s contest.
The invention of photography in the early 19th century was a game-changer, issuing a dire challenge to painters. Suddenly, trompe l’oeil seemed like an obsolete endeavor. The photograph immediately superseded an artist’s illusionistic skills or the fun and games of being fooled by a painting. Instead of aiming for illusion, realism took on a new political meaning, especially in France, becoming a tool to truthfully depict reality. Artists like
In the early 20th century, it was radical modernists like
It was only in the late 1960s that trompe l’oeil again found its footing in mainstream art. Art dealer Louis K. Meisel originated the term “
Estes’s Nedick’s (1970), to cite one of many examples, brilliantly captures the gleaming metal and reflective, window-walled exterior of an all-American diner. The work offers a compelling illusion of reality; it’s so precise that it seems familiar to anyone who looks at it.
Zeuxis and Parrhasius’s game of one-upmanship all those millennia ago set the stage for an endless artistic conflict between fiction and fantasy. Evolving tools, skills, and philosophies have shaped the character of illusionism over the centuries, but each new iteration always prompts the question: What is true in art? Our own era of artificial intelligence and virtual-reality technologies—of altered photographs and deep fakes—seems to promise that the interplay between illusion and reality is only at its beginning.
Julia Wolkoff is Artsy’s Editor, Art History.