A Closer Look at the Visual Illusions Artists Have Used to Deceive the Eye

Julia Fiore
Nov 7, 2018 4:15PM

Adriaen van der Spelt, Trompe-l’Oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain, 1658. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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 trompe l’oeil, the French term for painterly optical illusions (literally translating to “deceive the eye”). The latter is more than ultra-realistic; its subject matter endeavors to pop out of the frame. Although the term “trompe l’oeil” was only coined in the 19th century, artists from ancient Greece to the present day have used their skills to play an often-humorous game of deceit.

Still life with eggs, birds, and bronze dishes from the House of Julia Felix, Pompeii, 50–79 BCE. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


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 still-life composition, the depicted grapes appeared so realistic that birds flew down to peck at them. It may have seemed like the battle was over. But then Zeuxis asked Parrhasius to draw back the curtain covering his own entry—only to discover that the “curtain” itself was a painted illusion. Zeuxis may have fooled the birds, but Parrhasius fooled the man.

In the same text, Pliny provides one of the earliest accounts of Greco-Roman painting, namely the frescoes painted in private villas. 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 Renaissance in Italy brought with it a renewed interest in antiquity and a revival of classical ideals. Like their ancient forebears, Early Renaissance artists turned to fresco, decorating private chapels or the homes of wealthy patrons with increasingly lifelike scenes that seemed to extend a four-walled room outward into the world.

In The Lives of the Artists (1550), Giorgio Vasari recounts a story in which Giotto—the painter often credited with first exemplifying the realistic artistic innovations that would define the Renaissance—plays a trick on his master, the medievally inclined icon painter Cimabue. While Cimabue’s back was turned, his impish apprentice quickly rendered a fly on the painting his master was working on; when he turned around, Cimabue tried to brush away the fly before realizing his mistake.

While Giotto reestablished naturalism in Italian painting, subsequent quattrocento figures built on his legacy. In the early 15th century, Filippo Brunelleschi successfully illustrated single-point linear perspective, and around the same time, the architect and artist Leon Battista Alberti wrote in his popular treatise on art, De pictura (1435), that a painting should be conceived as an open window through which its subject might be viewed. To that end, artists versed in these new developments began to consciously imbue their religious and mythological scenes with optical effects.

Masaccio’s famous Holy Trinity fresco (1425–26) in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella illustrates a common New Testament scene with radically innovative techniques. Nearly life-size renderings of Christ, the Holy Father, the Virgin Mary, St. John the Evangelist, and the two donors who financed the work appear in a coffered, barrel-vaulted chapel, with a tomb containing a skeleton painted below. Masaccio expertly demonstrates Brunelleschi’s recently developed principles of perspective, setting the vanishing point at eye-level, at the foot of the cross, so that viewers look up at the Holy Trinity and down at the tomb. Five feet above the painted floor, the points converge, creating the illusion that this fictive scene actually continues the architecture of the church. In this masterwork, the artist made the radical decision to adjust the picture to the position of the viewer, implicating the faithful in the scene.

Andrea Mantegna, a pioneer of foreshortening (a perspectival technique of rendering an object so it appears to be projecting into space), took up Masaccio’s mantle. His Camera degli Sposi (“the bride and groom chamber”) frescoes (1465–74), in Mantua’s Palazzo Ducale, seem consciously modeled on ancient Greco-Roman wall painting. The walls are covered with lifelike renderings of courtiers who inhabit the modeled architecture—which matches the decor of the real chamber—so it feels as if they are in the room. The crowning achievement of this set of works, however, is found on the ceiling: An elaborately painted oculus reveals a blue sky studded with fluffy clouds. Fat putti, rendered in an extreme form of foreshortening called di sotto in su (“from below, upward”), hang over the ledge, peering down at the spectators below.

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 Hans Memling, Hugo van der Goes, and Hieronymus Bosch were among the first artists to incorporate illusionistic devices in their works. It became a common practice, for instance, to paint the outer panels of an altarpiece—which usually featured saints or the donors who commissioned the painting—in grisaille to create the illusion of sculptures set in niches in the wall. Jan van Eyck’s The Annunciation Diptych (1433–35) serves as a prominent example of this trend, the rendered figures appearing at once lifelike and as expertly carved stone sculptures.

Yet it is the portrait that most defines the Northern Renaissance. In this genre, artists could best display their abilities to capture the essence of an individual—and offer a variety of visual tricks. Petrus Christus’s Portrait of a Carthusian (1446) places the finely rendered monk in a warmly illuminated red chamber, a departure from his predecessor Van Eyck’s flat backgrounds. Perhaps in reference to Giotto, Christus here amplifies the verisimilitude of the scene by including a fly on the painted frame, which, in turn, bears the inscription: “Petrus Christus made me in the year 1446.”

Jan van Eyck, The Annunciation Diptych, ca. 1433–35. © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

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 Baroque period often incorporated in their still lifes Lutheran and Calvinist symbols that reflect principles of humility, especially in regard to the transience of life. Banquet scenes feature half-eaten imported delicacies, candles that have been snuffed out, gleaming silver goblets, and shining glass containers that have spilled over and broken. Artists revelled in small details that made the viewer feel as if they are in the scene. An imported lemon with its curling rind spilling over the table is an omnipresent motif that begs the viewer to reach out and grasp it.

Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts’s Trompe l’oeil with Studio Wall and Vanitas Still Life (1668), for example, expands on the still life, but ultimately serves as a commentary about art and perception. Here, a painting-within-the-painting—a detailed vanitas scene—peels off the wood-paneled wall against which it is rendered. Miniatures and precariously balanced painters’ tools tacked to the wood complete the layered composition.

Petrus Christus, Portrait of a Carthusian, 1446. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Artists also harkened back to Zeuxis and Parrhasius’s contest. Adriaen van der Spelt mines the theatricality of the common 17th-century practice of keeping paintings in domestic interiors behind a curtain in his Trompe-l’Oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain (1658), a wild bouquet partially concealed by a vividly radiant blue silk curtain. If Parrhasius had a fraction of Van der Spelt’s skill, one could easily understand how Zeuxis might have been fooled.

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 Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet turned to laborers and peasants for their subject matter, employing a naturalistic style to objectively represent everyday life. Meanwhile, in America, trompe l’oeil painting became a popular, if not kitschy, art form displayed in bars and hotels.

In the early 20th century, it was radical modernists like René Magritte and Salvador Dalí who took up the trompe l’oeil mantle, using realism to turn reality on its head. In mind-bending works like La condition humaine (1933) and Les Promenades d’Euclide (1955), Magritte follows in the Flemish realist tradition, but upends the long-cherished idea of painting as a window by illustrating a painting of a painting of a window.

Edwaert Colyer, Still Life, ca. 1696. Courtesy of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

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 “photorealism” in 1969 in reference to a crop of contemporary artists who made incredibly detailed works directly from photographic sources. Pioneers of the movement like Chuck Close and Richard Estes turned to photography for their source material not as a challenge, but as a source of inspiration, striving to emulate the sharp quality of film. (Photorealism’s European counterpart is often referred to as “hyperrealism.” As French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote in 1981, the term refers to “the simulation of something which never really existed.”) Close produced scores of blown-up portraits of himself and others on the scene that show every follicle and pore, while Estes turned his attention to the city streets.

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. Gerhard Richter, aligned with the photorealists but not directly affiliated with the movement, took their concerns to a postmodern extreme, creating paintings inspired by usually undesirable photographic effects, like blurring. His 1983 Schädel pairs down the vanitas theme with humor. The title of the painting—a human skull reflected in a shiny table—refers to a hangover headache, a metaphysical reality.

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 Fiore