18th Century American Trompe L’oeil

A trompe l’oeil can incorporate other objects. Gysbrechts Cut-Out Trompe l’Oeil Easel with Fruit Piece uses an easel and paintings of items found in a studio – palette, rag, and brushes painted on canvases cut to the size of the objects to make the paintings look more real. Charles Willson Peale uses a similar technique with his The Staircase Group. Here a door frame and a stair are incorporated into the work to make the painting more convincing.

The Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale I), 1795. Charles Willson Peale, American, 1741 – 1827

On page 164 in the textbook American Encounters there is this description of the work: “To heighten the illusionism of the painting, Peale installed it within a door frame, complete with an actual stair step and riser at the base of the painting. The effect was electrifying. When George Washington visited Peale’s Philadelphia Museum two years later, he saw the reinstalled painting, and, according to a report by Peale’s son Rembrandt, ‘bowed politely to the painted figures.’ So powerful was Peale’s illusionism that Washington had mistaken Peale’s figures for living persons” (1).

Unlike examples of trompe l’oeil from the 19th century, Peale’s painting has a message of upward mobility for artists. “It is also part of what the art historian David Steinberg has called Peale’s ‘project of cultivating a public for high art.’ Despite its illusionism, The Staircase Group possesses meanings that extend beyond its realistic style. Raphaelle’s progress along the stairwell with his palette and maulstick suggests that not just he, but the arts themselves, are ascending. The painting links the cultural endeavor with national progress in a theme of uplift and ascent” (2).

Raphaelle Peale, Fruit Piece with Peaches Covered by a Handkerchief (Covered Peaches), circa 1819.

Peale’s son Raphaelle also creates a few trompe l’oeil paintings that have a deeper meaning than just fooling an audience and creating work for the market. In Framing America by Frances K. Pohl there are two examples of Peale’s trompe l’oeil works. The first is Fruit Piece with Peaches Covered by a Handkerchief (Covered Peaches) from circa 1819, the second is Venus Rising from the Sea – A Deception (After the Bath), from circa 1822. Of these two paintings it is the Venus Rising From the Sea that may be a sign that Raphaelle was rejecting his father’s world.

Raphaelle Peale, Venus Rising from the Sea - A Deception (After the Bath), circa 1822

Raphaelle Peale, Venus Rising from the Sea – A Deception (After the Bath), circa 1822

“While embracing this mythological subject, Raphaelle simultaneously rejects the subject, and the academic canon it represents, by not painting Venus. He may also have been commenting wryly on a gradual increase in the number of prints and paintings of naked women in the homes of prosperous Americans, who passed off their presence as a sign of cultivation rather than as an opportunity to indulge in more sensual viewing pleasures. Indeed, Raphaelle’s Venus looks back to an engraving by Valentine Greene after James Barry’s Venus Rising from the Sea of 1771, an engraving that is thought to have been the source for a 1774 painting of Venus by Raphaelle’s father.”…”Raphaelle negates the academic system upon which his father based his whole career as an artist, as well as the corruptions of an art market his father wanted him willingly to join.”…”He is also effacing the efforts of his father to define him – literally – for it was recently discovered that beneath this painting of Venus lies Raphaelle’s copy of his father’s 1822 half-length portrait of him (the barely visible segment of a framed still life at the upper right and a palette and brushes at the lower left are from the original portrait). He initially simply covered the face and shoulders with the cloth, only subsequently backing away from such a direct refusal of his father’s image and transforming the painting into Venus Rising” (3).

1. Miller, Angela L. et al. American Encounters: Art, History, and Cultural Identity. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2008 (164).

2. Ibid, p. 165.

3. Pohl, Frances K. Framing America: A Social History of American Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2012 (189).


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