19th Century American Trompe L’oeil II

Notes from Frankenstein, Alfred. The Reality of Appearance: The Trompe L’oeil Tradition in American Painting. Netherlands: New York Graphic Society Ltd., 1970.

Catalog for “the first major museum exhibition of American trompe l’oeil.” Organized by the University Art Museum at Berkeley, it traveled to the National Gallery of Art in DC, the Whitney in NYC, the University Art Museum in Berkeley, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in SF, and the Detroit Institute of Arts all in 1970.

The catalog includes two examples of the back of the canvas theme.

John Frederick Peto, Lincoln and the Pfleger Stretcher, 1898.

John Frederick Peto, Lincoln and the Pfleger Stretcher, 1898.

John Frederick Peto’s Lincoln and the Pfleger Stretcher from 1898 (p. 100) and William M. Davis’s A Canvas Back possibly from circa 1870 (p. 54).

It’s not certain who used the idea first or if they came up with it independently.

The Pfleger Patent was a type of stretcher that Peto often used and because it had a distinctive form – beveled and beaded – it was used to differentiate between Peto and William Harnett’s work. The Lincoln portrait was also a common way to distinguish Peto’s work. The Lincoln portrait was based on an engraving based on a photograph by Matthew Brady. (similar to the Galatea engraving) The Lincoln portrait is unfinished around the mouth, according to Frankenstein this was common of Peto in his later years.


The second example is William M. Davis’s “A Canvas Back”. This painting features a note identifying the artist and letters hidden in the back of a canvas.


Baudrillard, Death, and The Trompe l’Oeil

Notes from Baudrillard, Jean. “The Trompe-l’Oeil.” In Norman Bryson ed., Calligram: Essays in New Art History from France, 53-62. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Baudrillard mentions the sense of loss and death apparent in trompe l’oeil painting.

p. 56-57

“As the physical impulse to seize things, itself than suspended and thus become metaphysical, the tactile hallucination is not that of objects but of death. […] every composition in trompe l’oeil contributes to the effect of loss, a sense of losing hold on the real through the very excess of its appearances. In trompe l’oeil objects are too much like the things they are: this close resemblance is like a second state, and their true relief, through this allegorical resemblance, through the diagonal light, is that of death.”

p. 57

“Here death is what is most at stake, the very thing to which one acceeds in the reversal of the perspectival system of representation. Everything makes its contribution: the opacity of the objects, their banality, the flat field without depth (the veins of the wood are like stagnant water, soft to the touch like a natural death), but above all the light, this mysterious light which has no source and whose oblique incidence no longer has anything in common with reality.”

Baudrillard’s comparison of wood grain and stagnant water brings to mind the seascapes of Sugimoto. They are representations of a specific location but they are also eerily unreal and allude to the beginning of life in a much more general way. Gysbrechts’s Back of a Canvas has the number 36 on it – perhaps to denote it was the 36th painting in a series but “in the context of the history of art, the number of this painting should not have been ’36’ but ‘0’.” (See Stoichita, Victor I. The Self-Aware Image: An Insight into Early Modern Meta-Painting. Trans. Anne-Marie Glasheen. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. pages 276-278.) Stoichita also mentions death: “The nihil negativum of life is the representation of death; the negative nothing of discourse is silence. And we might add: The negative nothing of the image is the image of the absence of image. To discourse about (or paint) ‘Nothing’ – that is an art.”

Seductive Reflexivity: Ruskin’s Dreaded Trompe l’oeil

Notes from Levine, Caroline. “Seductive Reflexivity: Ruskin’s Dreaded Trompe L’oeil.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 56.4 (1998): 366–375.

p. 366

“…with Ruskin as my guide, I will consider the significant threat to realism posed by the double, ironic experience of trompe l’oeil. In defiance of its reputation as a low and vulgar art form, trompe l’oeil emerges as a peculiarly powerful reflexive project, a mimetic enterprise that leads its viewers to a critical self-consciousness about the construction of representation.”

p. 366-368

“For Ruskin, it is precisely in the moment of passage from one impression to the other that the pleasurable experience of imitative art resides. A temporal split is therefore fundamental to the effect: we derive our enjoyment from the disjuncture between the illusory image of space and the flat corporeality of the canvas; we appreciate the skill of the trompe l’oeil artifice, and take satisfaction in having detected the fraud. Thus imitative art generates pleasure ‘not from the contemplation of a truth, but from the discovery of a falsehood’ (p. 108)– painting focused on its own deceptions.”

p. 368

“…the more conventionally ‘realistic’ the image, the less the work of art will tell us about the object it portrays. […] At its most referential, painting becomes self-referential, and in pretending to inhabit the real, painting–paradoxically–draws attention to itself as painting.”

p. 369-370

“In attempting to compel us to ignore the medium, Ruskin embraces a dichotomy that will certainly last through modernism: we may attend to the materials of art, or we may attend to the content of art, but to do both at once is impossible. With modernism, of course, it will be content that is most often abandoned, where for Ruskin it is the materiality of the medium.”

p. 371

“Switching back and forth between alternate moments of understanding, the viewer engaged in the pleasurable experience of imitative art undoes the notion of a universal vision tied to a common subjectivity, suggesting that there are in fact two conflicting ways of seeing the object – either as the real or as the representational – both of which are necessarily involved in our pleasurable experience of imitative art.”

“…trompe l’oeil always compels us to focus on the blurring and confusion of boundaries…”

“…imitative art is dangerous because it teaches us to enjoy our own authority. We come to pride ourselves on knowing the score.”


“Thus art is truthful only when it captures a moment of lived visual experience, translating this experiential instant into the proportional relationships appropriate to the medium.”

“Thus the term ‘self-reflexivity’ is itself misleading, disregarding the crucial place of the subject in this process. Self-reflexive art is not a self-divided object, but an object that divides the subject, by offering us two mutually exclusive moments of experience – one of perceiving art as a reference to the real, the other of perceiving it as an artificial object, a skillful fabrication.”


“…the stable experience of truthful art requires a particular kind of subject, rather than a particular kind of painting.”


“The modernist emphasis on the medium is typically generated by the use of new materials, or by the unfamiliar use of conventional ones.”

“…trompe l’oeil can be seen as an intrinsically antirealist mimesis, an art that compels us to reflect on the making of art.”


“Unlike other mimetic projects, it does not seek to be like the real, but rather to seem to inhabit the real, and only then to announce its difference from that world. It is this, for Ruskin, that makes trompe l’oeil unsettling, bewildering, even offensive.”

p. 374

“Trompe l’oeil, consummate art of versimilitude, thus marks both the quintessence of realism and its impossibility.”

(in the endnotes) “…there would be little pleasure in trompe l’oeil if we never paid attention to the fact that it was a trick.” WHY PHOTOGRAPHY WASN’T THE BEST OPTION – this article also talks about the medium that is so ubiquitous that we see through it all the time – today that is photography.

An Engraving of Galatea


Sebastian Stosskopff “An Engraving of Galatea, Attached to a Board” 1644-1657

This example of trompe l’oeil consists of a painting of an engraving based on a painting.

P. 187 of Ebert-Schifferer, Sybille. Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting. Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 2002.

“…he successfully imitated a well-known engravers style, and managed to do so without using paper.”

“The work exhibited here, a deceivingly convincing painting of an individual print, is the oldest known work of its kind.”

Trompe L’oeil

Notes from Ebert-Schifferer, Sybille. Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting. Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 2002.

P. 17

“Trompe L’oeil” is a French term meaning eye deceiver and it first appeared as a noun in 1800.

All painting until the mid 1800s strove for accurate imitation of the world. “Thus it was unnecessary to designate a genre for paintings that were particularly successful in this way.” Instead, subject matter separated what technique did not. History painting was at the top and still-life was at the bottom. To succeed at still-life all it took was technical skill. “It was precisely the way trompe l’oeil caused a painter to disappear behind his work that resulted in this genre’s being so despised within the hierarchic schemes established by the academies.” Display of authorship was important.

P. 18

Academia was not a fan of the still-life genre, but it was popular with the public.

Ruskin (1819-1900) “…presciently identified what would become a hallmark of the modern age, one that would finally undermine the concept of mimesis itself: trompe l’oeil was a dangerously subversive art form that – by compelling us to contemplate object-ness, the conditions of its making, and the mechanics of human perception – profoundly shattered our faith in our ability to recognize truths.”

Mats 2009 Palm Fine Arts

Mats 2009 Palm Fine Arts

P. 19

About Parrhasias and Zeuxis.

“That an artist’s status grew in proportion to the rank of the person deceived became a topos as well…”

“…the intellectual or social status of the deceived viewer was taken as the measure of an artist’s rank.”


Trompe L’oeil II

Notes from Ebert-Schifferer, Sybille. Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting. Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 2002.

P. 21

Why trompe l’oeil started to be accepted in the 13th c.

“In contrast with Aristotle, Plato rejected the mimetic capacity of painting as nothing but a shadow play obscuring the truth. And in the wake of medieval Christian thought, when everything the human eye could see was deemed a hollow semblance, illusionism was like wise denigrated as mere ‘deceit’.” The shift occurred in the 13th century with a new empirical approach – one-point perspective, light and shadow, colors, and imitation becomes a good thing.

From Vasari – “It is said that when Giotto was only a boy with Cimabue, he once painted a fly on the nose of a face that Cimabue had drawn, so naturally that the master returning to his work tried more than once to drive it away with his hand, thinking it was real. And I might tell you of many other jests played by Giotto, but of this enough.”

P. 23

Sense of touch and trompe l’oeil


Image from The Onion -Struggling Museum Now Allowing Patrons To Touch Paintings. ISSUE 45•41 • Oct 5, 2009

“When the object is no longer optically distinguishable from its representation, the sense of touch becomes a corrective to the sense of sight.”

Rules of trompe l’oeil

“It is agreed that a trompe l’oeil motif must be represented in a natural or, at least, plausible size, as completely as possible (not cut off by the picture frame for instance), and with no visible traces of the painting process. Otherwise the viewer’s expectations in regard to a real object might be challenged.”

“It is agreed that a trompe l’oeil motif must be represented in a natural or, at least, plausible size, as completely as possible (not cut off by the picture frame for instance), and with no visible traces of the painting process. Otherwise the viewer’s expectations in regard to a real object might be challenged.”

Alan Carroll outlines 5 rules of trompe l’oeil on his blog Surface Fragments.

  • paint object actual size
  • shallow space is better
  • hide brushstrokes
  • don’t paint humans
  • paint the entire object

In the forward to The Reality of Appearance: The Trompe L’oeil Tradition in American Painting by Alfred Frankenstein, there is also a list of rules by which trompe l’oeil should follow.  Frankenstein and Carroll have most of the same items. Frankenstein elaborates that dead animals are fine subject matter because they are still.

P. 24

Viewer interaction is essential

“…elicit a feeling of astonishment … and of longing admiration.”

“The goal of trompe l’oeil is not the continuous deception of the viewer … but rather the feeling of astonishment at one’s own perception.”

“Trompe l’oeils belong among the most extroverted of all artistic genres to the extent that without the reaction of a viewer they lose their raison d’etre.”

“…trompe l’oeil paintings represent a highly self-reflexive genre, a sustained debate between the art and itself, the artist and himself. Thus trompe l’oeil paintings are much more than mere technical artifice or decoration, as has so long been asserted within the academic hierarchy of genres.”

Trompe L’oeil III

Notes from Ebert-Schifferer, Sybille. Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting. Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 2002.

P. 26

When does trompe l’oeil succeed

Trompe l’oeil objects succeed if in the proper context – people will believe it more if they are expecting to see it or if it makes sense in that setting. “…the momentary success of the artifice depends on the viewer’s expectation that the object will be found in a specific context – which is lost in a museum setting of course.” Fitting settings for the paintings in Verso might be the artists studio or museum storage.

Still life details

The notes, stamps, pieces of paper on traditional trompe l’oeil works are similar to the exhibit labels on the Verso works.

“Seemingly innocuous rack pictures could in fact belie the charge that still life, unlike history painting, did not relate a narrative. Like most trompe l’oeil painters up until the time of Boilly, they did this by making reference to the status of art and artist.”

With Verso the narrative becomes the history of the object as recorded by the exhibit labels and wear.

P. 33


Gijsbrechts “Back of a Picture”

“‘The Back of a Picture’ is the most radical representation of this paradox [the object of this painting is the painting as an object] because here the painting’s outline and format collapse into each other.”

“They simulate a reality that lacks ‘only’ the three-dimensionality that would make them indistinguishable from real objects, a plasticity fabricated by interior shading.”

“Gijsbrechts’ ‘Back of  a Picture’ differs from a ready-made solely – although certainly decisively – in being a painted reverse.”