Trompe l'Oeil Art Fools the Eye

Paintings and Murals Designed to Deceive

Trompe l'oeil mural of an Egyptian archway on building in Miami, Florida
Mural for Fontainebleau Hotel, Richard Haas, Designer, Created 1985-86, Demolished 2002. Photo © Corbis/Getty Images

French for "fool the eye," trompe l'oeil art creates the illusion of reality. Through skillful use of color, shading, and perspective, painted objects appear three-dimensional. Faux finishes like marbling and wood graining add to the trompe l'oeil effect. Applied to furniture, paintings, walls, ceilings, decorative items, set designs, or building facades, trompe l’oeil art inspires a gasp of surprise and wonder. Although tromper means "to deceive," viewers are often willing participants, delighting in the visual trickery.

Pronounced tromp loi, trompe-l’oeil may be spelled with or without a hyphen. In French, the œ ligature is used: trompe l’œil. Realistic artworks were not described as trompe-l'oeil until the late 1800s, but the desire to capture reality dates back to ancient times.

Early Frescoes

In ancient Greece and Rome, artisans applied pigments to wet plaster to create life-like details. Plain surfaces took on a sense of grandeur when painters added false columns, corbels, and other architectural ornaments. The Greek artist Zeuxis (5th century B.C.) is said to have painted grapes so convincing, even birds were deceived. Frescoes (plaster wall paintings) found in Pompeii and other archaeological sites contain trompe l'oeil elements.

For many centuries, artists continued to use the wet plaster method to transform interior spaces. In villas, palaces, churches, and cathedrals, trompe l'oeil images gave the illusion of vast space and distant vistas. Through the magic of perspective and skillful use of light and shadow, domes became sky and windowless spaces opened to imaginary vistas. Renaissance artist Michelangelo (1475 -1564) used wet plaster when he filled the vast ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with cascading angels, Biblical figures, and an enormous bearded God surrounded by trompe l'oeil columns and beams.

Secret Formulas

By painting with wet plaster, artists could give walls and ceilings rich color and a sense of depth. However, plaster dries quickly. Even the greatest fresco painters could not achieve subtle blending or precise details. For smaller paintings, European artists commonly used egg-based tempera applied to wood panels. This medium was easier to work with, but it also dried quickly. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, artists searched for new, more flexible paint formulas.

The Northern European painter Jan Van Eyck (c.1395-c.1441) popularized the idea of adding boiled oil to pigments. Thin, nearly transparent glazes applied over wood panels gave objects a life-like gleam. Measuring less than thirteen inches long, Van Eyck's Dresen Triptych is a tour de force with ultra real  images of Romanesque columns and arches. Viewers can imagine they are looking through a window into a Biblical scene. Faux carvings and tapestries enhance the illusion.

Other Renaissance painters invented their own recipes, combining the traditional egg-based tempera formula with a variety of ingredients, from powdered bone to lead and walnut oil. Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) used his own experimental oil and tempera formula when he painted his famous mural, The Last Supper. Tragically, da Vinci’s methods were flawed and the breathtakingly realistic details began to flake within a few years.

Dutch Deceivers

During the 17th century, Flemish still life painters became known for optical illusions. Three-dimensional objects seemed to project from the frame. Open cabinets and archways suggested deep recesses. Stamps, letters, and news bulletins were depicted so convincingly, passersby might be tempted to pluck them from the painting. Sometimes images of brushes and palettes were included to call attention to the deception.

There’s an air of delight in the artistic trickery, and it’s possible that the Dutch masters competed in their efforts to conjure reality. Many developed new oil-and wax-based formulas, each claiming that their own offered superior properties. Artists like Gerard Houckgeest (1600-1661), Gerrit Dou (1613-1675), Samuel Dirksz Hoogstraten (1627-1678), and Evert Collier (c.1640-1710) could not have painted their magical deceptions if not for the versatility of the new mediums.

Eventually, advanced technologies and mass-production made the painting formulas of the Dutch masters obsolete. Popular tastes moved toward expressionist and abstract styles. Nevertheless, a fascination for trompe l'oeil realism persisted through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. American artists De Scott Evans (1847-1898), William Harnett (1848–1892), John Peto (1854–1907), and John Haberle (1856-1933) painted meticulous still lifes in the tradition of the Dutch illusionists. French-born painter and scholar Jacques Maroger (1884-1962) analyzed the properties of early paint mediums. His classic text, The Secret Formulas and Techniques of the Masters, included recipes he claimed to have rediscovered.

3-D Street Art

The term trompe l'oeil is often used synonymously with Magic Realism and Photorealism. These styles, along with various other realistic painting styles, use trompe l'oeil techniques to suggest alternate realities. Trompe l’oeil by contemporary artists can be whimsical, satirical, disturbing, or surreal. Incorporated into paintings, murals, advertising posters, and sculpture, the deceptive images often defy the laws of physics and toy with our perception of the world.

Artist Richard Haas made deft use of trompe l’oeil magic when he designed a six-story mural for the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami. False finishes transformed a blank wall into a triumphal arch made of mortared stone blocks (shown above). The enormous fluted column, the twin caryatids, and the bass relief flamingos were tricks of light, shadow, and perspective.The sky and waterfall were also optical illusions, teasing passersby into believing they might stroll through the arch to the beach.

The Fontainebleau mural entertained Miami visitors from 1986 until 2002, when the wall was demolished to make way for real, rather than trompe l’oeil, views of the waterside resort. Commercial wall art like the Fontainebleau mural is often transitory. Weather takes a toll, tastes change, and new construction replaces the old.

Nevertheless, 3-D street art plays an important role in reshaping our urban landscapes. Time-bending murals by French artist Pierre Delavie conjur historic vistas. German artist Edgar Mueller turns street pavement into heart-thumping views of cliffs and caves. American artist John Pugh opens walls with eye-deceiving images of impossible scenes. In cities around the world, trompe l'oeil mural artists force us to ask: What is real? What is artifice? What is important?

Resources and Further Reading