19th Century American Trompe L’oeil I

According to Ebert-Schifferer, one of the reasons trompe l’oeil painting flourished in 17th century Holland and 19th century America is because both had bourgeois economies with small capitalist markets (1). In Framing America by Frances K. Pohl we see the same explanation: “While the academician might place still life at the lower end of the hierarchy of genres (with history painting still assuming a prominent place at the top), and might also dismiss trompe l’oeil illusionism as lacking in that crucial element of great art – imagination – the department store shopper and middle-class traveler followed his or her own tastes. And these tastes were increasingly being guided by the same men who marketed other objects with persistence in their stores and saloons. The art market was, indeed, becoming more ‘democratic,’ much to the chagrin of artists like Whistler and Dewing”(2).

William Michael Harnett, Faithful Colt, 1890

Even though the burgeoning marketplace made it possible for artists to survive on painting still lifes and trompe l’oeil subject matter, it was not advised that the artists actually paint new commodities. As quoted in James A. Cook’s book The Arts of Deception, artist William Harnett explained in the New York News that “To find a subject that paints well is not an easy task. As a rule, new things do not paint well. …I want my models to have the mellowing effect of age” (3). In Framing America Pohl writes, “‘Old and worn objects provided appealing subject matter,’ writes [David] Lubin, ‘but just so long as the portrayal of them, the painting itself, had the look of an obejcet good as new.'” Harnett’s works suggested “that traditional ways of life could coexist with the new machine age. This was a message welcomed by many caught up in the psychological and material dislocations of an urbanizing and industrializing era” (4).

Cook looks further into why the trompe l’oeil paintings were so popular with a broad audience and finds that viewers were being tested about what is real and not in a variety of exhibitions. In addition to exhibits of trompe l’oeil paintings in galleries there were also exhibits by P. T. Barnum at his museum in New York and his traveling circus, as well as the rise of the Expositions held in cities around the U. S.

View of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. The Museum was a popular attraction in New York in the 1850s.

In 1888 in St. Louis the Exposition featured George W. Platt’s “Vanishing Glories” which made the news because it was so well executed. People debated how it was made. A news article in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that “A great many people think that the picture is painted on an old barn door, and others think that the artist has simply painted well the old weather beaten pine. It is a very puzzling question whether he has used wood or canvas, and every night there is discussion over it between the people of different opinions” (5).

1.  Ebert-Schifferer, Sybille. Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting. Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 2002 (95).

2. Pohl, Frances K. Framing America: A Social History of American Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2012 (295).

3. Cook, James W. The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2001 (224).

4. Pohl, p. 296

5. Cook, p. 241


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