Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Trompe l’œil

Posted by Elyse Bruce on September 23, 2010

A “trompe l’oeil” is a painting rendered in such great detail as to deceive the viewer into believing it is reality.  The phrase literally means “tricking the eye” and the best examples of “trompe l’oeil.”

The story of how the style of painting came about is one that can neither be confirmed nor denied.  The story goes that in ancient Greece, there were two rival painters.  One was named Zeuxis (born circa 464 BC) and the other was named Parrhasius.  One day, to prove who was the master of his art, it was decided they would each paint the most perfect illusion of the real world on canvas with nothing more than paint and paintbrushes. 

It’s said that Zeuxis painted a likeness of grapes on his canvas that was so natural that birds flew down to peck at them.  Parrhasius brought in his canvas covered in a cloth.  Parrhasius invited Zeuxis to unveil the painting whereupon Zeuxis learned he had lost the contest. What at first glance appeared to be a cloth covering the canvas was, in reality, Parrhasius‘ painting.

The phrase was used to describe perspectival illusionism art in the Baroque period, however it is found in Ancient Greek and Roman murals such as those depicting Pompeii.  This genre of perspective drawing was mastered by Italian Renaissance painters of the late Quattrocento era.  The American 19th century still-life painter William Harnett specialized in “trompe l’œil” and prior to CGI use in films, trompe l’oeil traveling mattes in such movies as “Star Wars” and “Who Framed Roger Rabbit.”

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