For those of you who have been following my blog over the years, you will know of my love of Flemish and Dutch art. Many of you would be able to conjure up names of some of the great Netherlandish artists such as the Flemish painters Pieter Bruegel, Hieronymus Bosch, Hans Memling, Quentin Massys, and David Teniers or the Dutch painters such as Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael, Jan Steen, Johannes Vermeer, van Gogh and Rembrandt, to mention just a few. My other artistic love is paintings with symbolism and so in the blog today, I want to introduce you to a lesser known Dutch painter many of whose paintings were awash with a myriad of symbolic objects.
My painter I am looking at today is the seventeenth century artist, Evert Collier, who is famous for his vanitas and trompe-l’œil still life works and today I will look at his vanitas paintings. Edwaert Colyer, a Dutch painter possibly of English descent, (who later anglicised his name to Edward Collier) was born in Breda in January 1642 and baptised Evert Calier. He trained in Haarlem and eventually became a member of the Haarlem Guild of St. Luke.
One of the greatest influences on Collier was a fellow painter of the Haarlem Guild of St Luke, Vincent Laurensz. van der Vinne. Initially van de Vinne trained as a weaver but then decided to concentrate on painting and in his late teens. He studied under Frans Hals, who actually painted his portrait around 1660, which is now housed at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
The paintings of van der Vinne which survive today are mostly still lifes and genre scenes. They often include many aspects of trompe l’oeil and, in many instances, incorporate vanitas items.
Vanitas paintings are subtle moralistic depictions which were very popular at the time and were those works of art which, through their symbols, depicted the impermanence of life, the pointlessness of pleasure and were meant to remind people that death is inevitable. In a way they were to counter the wealth and profligacy of many of the well-to-do citizens. The word vanitas comes from the Latin noun ’emptiness’, ‘futility’, or ‘worthlessness’, which was the traditional Christian view being that earthly goods and lavish pastimes are merely fleeting and worthless moments in the great scheme of life. Such prosperity was countered by the words of condemnation from the bible (Ecclesiastes 1:2):
“…Vanity of vanities”, says the Preacher, “vanity of vanities! All is vanity.…”
The first work by Collier I am showing is one simply entitled A Vanitas Still Life which was completed by him in 1689. Let us study the work and look at the amazing detail. Look at the way Collier has depicted the string of pearls and the other jewels spilling out of an open casket. Next to the casket we see a Nautilus cup, so called as it was a cup made from a carved and polished nautilus shell and then mounted by goldsmiths on a thin stem of gold or silver to add to the extravagance. In front of the Nautilus cup we see a skull, crowned with laurel. The skull lies on top of an upturned crown, below which we see closed bellows and the jewelled hilt of a sword. The hilt of the sword traps a note to the edge of the table. The Latin inscription on the note is a salutary warning:
NEMO ANTE MORTEM BEATUS DICI. POTEST
(No one can be called happy before death)
It is a warning about not calling anyone blessed or happy, beatus, before he’s experienced all that life has had to offer.
Lying on the table behind the open casket, although not very clear in the picture, is a smouldering taper, wound with ivy. To the right of the skull one can just make out an open book.
So, what does it all symbolise? In one word, our mortality. The presence of the skull is a memento mori or reminder of death and immediately defines the work as a vanitas still life. But there are more symbolism in this work other than the skull representing death.
It is the association of the skull and the items of extreme wealth, such as the gold-stemmed Nautilus cup, casket overflowing with precious jewels and the gold crown which together remind us that wealth and power are futile in the face of death, which harks back to the passage in the book of Ecclesiastes in the bible.
Look at the richness of colour in this work. The glimmering pearls, the black and red gemstones, and the pearly grey shimmer of the Nautilus cup, which is adorned by golden figures. The whites and the golds of the crown and jewelled-bedecked sword hilt glitter in the light and are picked up in the gilded tassels of the table cloth.
As one looks at the painting one is seduced by the riches before us but one cannot get over the sight of the skull, symbolising death and the expiring taper which symbolises the transience of life, all of which serve as a warning that we should not be beguiled by such earthly wealth. Even the bellows is symbolic as they are used to pump life into a dying fire but in the painting, the bellows lie closed and of no use. The down-turned crown symbolises, which once represented power and kingship, has been symbolically overturned by death and even the bejewelled sword which once was an emblem of power and earthly might is rendered ineffectual by death.
But the painting is not all symbolising doom and gloom. There are also symbols of hope. The laurel wreath atop the skull and the open book present an encouraging note that fame achieved through learning can conquer death and this is corroborated by the note on the stone pillar:
FINIS CORONAT OPUS
(the end crowns the work)
which is a variant of the well-known Vanitas maxim:
Vita Brevis, ars longa
(Life is brief but art endures)
Above is an early work by Collier, painted in 1662, during a period when he produced some of his best work. In this depiction he includes a candlestick, musical instruments, Dutch books, a writing set, an astrological and a terrestrial globe and an hourglass, all of which are on a table covered by a heavy ornate table covering. Once again these decorative and expensive objects indicate that wealth, knowledge and power are all earthly, temporary and ultimately meaningless. The tempus fugit theme is symbolised by the burning candle, pocket watch and hourglass which also represents the brevity of life; the violin with a broken string signifies the transient pleasure of music whilst the money bag denotes the worldly riches. The scholarly books and globes represent the vanity of learning, and the military flag denotes worldly power. On a piece of paper at far right one can once again read the words from Ecclesiastes:
Vanitas Vanitatu Et Omnia Vanitas
[Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity]
The Vanitas work above by Collier is housed in the Denver Art Museum. This one, although having a number of Vanitas symbols, does not have a skull. Look at how Collier has given through this work the idea of it being 3-D when we know it is simply a 2-D painting. Such “artistic trickery” is known as trompe d’oeil (trick of the eye).
Collier moved to London in 1693, where he lived almost ten years. In 1702, Collier returned to Leiden, where he worked productively for four years. However, due to circumstances, the artist was forced again to move to London. There, in September 1708, Evert Collier died, aged 66 and was buried in the cemetery of the church of St James’s Piccadilly.
My artist today is the prolific late eighteenth century French painter Louis-Léopold Boilly, who was best known for his genre scenes featuring life in the French capital during the French Revolution and the French Empire. He is also renowned for his revolutionary use of lithography.
Boilly was born on July 5th 1761 in La Bassée, a commune in the Nord department of northern France, sixty kilometres south-east of Calais. His father was wood carver and it was he, who gave Léopold his first lessons in art, and soon during his early teens young Boilly was producing many good works of art, a fact that came to the attention of the Austin friars at the monastery in Douai, a town close to his home. By 1774, word of Boilly’s artistic talent reached the bishop of Arras, Monseigneur Louis François Marc Hilaire de Conzié, who offered him a place to live and paint in Arras.
Also around this time, living and working in Arras, was the Flemish-born artist Guillaume-Dominique-Jacques Doncre, who made a living from painting portraits of the members of the Conseil of Arras and members of the local aristocracy but who also specialised in trompe-l’oeil paintings. It is thought that maybe Léopold Boilly studied under Doncre as the young artist developed a liking for trompe l’oeil works.
Trompe l’oeil, (French for “deceive the eye) is a style of painting invented by the ancient Greeks whereby the artist creates an illusion of space often showing apparently three dimensional objects and spaces in a way which the eye accepts as realism in the context of their surroundings. It was particularly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Low Countries and Northern France. This trompe l’oeil by Dominique Doncre, above was completed in 1785. At first sight it looks like a collection of items set out randomly on his “noticeboard”. Two horizontal straps seem to be holding the items in place including what looks like an engraved page featuring the artist himself and we know it is Doncre as the words “ego sum pictor (I am the painter) are beneath the portrait. On a card below the pair of spectacles, he has also signed and dated the painting. It is a simple work with no hidden message.
Léopold Boilly completed several trompe l’oeil paintings of his own and my favourite is one with a cat gazing through a hole in the canvas caused by a log which has pierced it. On the top bottom of which are fish hanging from the stretcher.
In 1785, aged twenty-four, Boilly went to live in Paris and there, two years later, he married Marie-Madeleine Desligne, the daughter of a merchant of Arras. In 1787 Boilly received a lucrative commission. The nobleman and lawyer, Antoine Joseph François Xavier Calvet de Lapalun had decided to refurbish his family residence in Avignon and he was advised by one of his former clients to incorporate an art collection into the re-modelling of the large house and at the same time arranged for his friend a number of introductions with some of the most influential Parisian art dealers who would be able tosell him the finest works of art. One of the artists chosen to provide works for the residence was Léopold Boilly. The former client, the Marquis Alexandre de Tulle de Villefranche, gave Calvet de Laupin a present of two of Boilly’s works, La Visite reçue and La Visite rendue. Calvet de Laupin was so pleased with the works that he commissioned Boilly to complete a further nine genre paintings of the same ilk.
All eleven genre works featured the many facets of love, all of which are set in an upper-middle class milieu. The people depicted in the various scenes look as if they are actors appearing in a stage play. These were not, unlike Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode, an eleven-episode story. Each were simply variations on the theme of love and left the viewer to decide what was happening in the painting. The setting of the two works I have included had been dictated to Boilly by Tulle de Villefranche while Calvet de Lapalun himself described the settings he wanted for the final seven works.
In 1790 Boilly completed a work entitled The Suitor’s Gift. In it we see a beautiful, elegantly dressed young woman looking out at us knowingly as she receives the attentions of a suitor. He is obviously a very generous suitor for on the table in front of the young woman we see a luxurious gift box which lies open. It had been lovingly wrapped, as we see several strands of pink ribbon lying over the side which had once secured the gift. In the box and resting on the front edge of it are two white roses and this presumably symbolises the young lady’s innocence and adolescence. The young woman’s face is flushed and it is this and her full and rounded cheeks that suggests she is very young, certainly in comparison to her much older suitor.
Her hair is worn loosely and is softly curled with a pink ribbon tied around the crown of her head. Her clothes are elegant and lady-like. She is attired in a graceful pink corseted gown over which is a thin gauze overskirt, which still allows us to see the colour of the gown. She stares out at us and by doing so turns away from her suitor. Is it coyness we are witnessing or is she taking in what she has just been given. Maybe she is deciding whether the gift meets with her expectations.
Her prospective beau, whom we can just make out in the background shadows, crouches down at the side of the table. Is he kneeling in a kind of devout reverence? Look at his expression. It is one of a man who is keenly awaiting to find out whether his gift had been well received by the young woman. It would appear by the way his left hand is grasping a crucifix which he wears around his neck that he is looking for divine help in his quest to please the lady. From the demeanour of the pair we get a feel for the relationship. Look how the woman smiles. It is a knowing smile. She knows she has the upper hand in this partnership. Maybe it is this thought that makes us revise our opinion of her. Maybe she is not as innocent and vulnerable as we first thought. At first sight we felt a little pity for her being pestered by an elderly man but maybe it is he whom we should be pitying for it seems she may well play him for a fool!
Boilly’s reputation as an artist who artistically recorded contemporary life in the French capital steadily grew and by often having his paintings on display at various exhibitions he ensured the public would not forget him. Boilly began exhibiting his work at the Salon in 1791, which was the first year it was open to all artists, previously the exhibition was only open to the work of recent graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts but control of the Salon was taken away from the Academy by the National Assembly, which ordered the exhibition opened to all artists.
In 1798 Boilly put forward his painting Gathering of Artists in the Studio of Isabey for exhibition at that year’s Salon. This genre of multi-figure or group portraits was popular with many Dutch and British artists and in this work of fiction, Boilly has imagined what it would have been like if all the young aspiring artists of the time had met up at the studio of his contemporary the French artist Jean-Baptiste Isabey, who we see dressed in red standing behind the man sitting at the easel. The studio’s classical decoration is the work of architects Percier and Fontaine whom we see depicted standing on the left.
Boilly regularly exhibited at the Salon until 1824 and he received a gold medal at the Salon of 1804 for his painting Arrival of the Stagecoach. The work depicts a major event in Parisian life – the daily arrival of a stagecoach in the crowded courtyard of the Messageries in rue Montmartre (which is now Rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoires). This was a place where stagecoaches converged from all over France and Europe in the early 19th century. In the painting, we see the stagecoach is in the parking space reserved for coaches coming from northern France and Belgium, indicated by the inscription on the wall.
This is an interesting study of Parisian life. Boilly has depicted a throng of people some of whom are waiting to board the stagecoach. By their attire, we can see the various social classes. At the centre of the painting we see a bourgeois being welcomed by his wife; on the left-hand side, we see a soldier with his arm around a flower seller or maybe she is a maid from the local hostelry, who by the way she is ignoring him, has only eyes for the well-dressed military officer with the plumed hat to her left. Unfortunately for her, he is totally disinterested in her. There is still one passenger, an elderly lady, sitting in the coach. Maybe she is awaiting assistance to help her debark, maybe someone was supposed to be there to meet her but has not arrived.
The young delivery men can be seen on top of and at the side of the coach helping to unload packages which have been brought in by the coach. We see another by the side of the military officer almost brought to his knees by the weight of the case he is carrying on his shoulder. He was a portefaix, an old term for a porter. These workers were known as gagne-deniers, unskilled workers, often peasants from the countryside who have come to the city to earn a living and often were paid a mere pittance. Now look at the characters on the far right of the painting. The man is the epitome of elegance albeit bordering on being a dandy. The lady with him has a pug on a leash, which was at the time the height of fashion. The little girl standing with them has turned her back on them and seems totally disinterested in the adult conversation.
Boilly continually showed an interest in the bustling life of Paris and in this work and others he highlighted the developing role of transport in the early 19th century with the Napoleonic wars and the development of capitalism. This painting which describes an everyday urban event, a scene which falls within the domain of genre painting which, at the time and in view of the Paris Salon academicians was considered inferior to history painting. Despite that, the work won the gold medal at the Salon in 1804 and was ultimately acquired by the Louvre in 1845.
Boilly was thirty-three at the height of the Reign of Terror period during the French Revolution in 1794. He was a half-hearted supporter of the Revolution, and that year he was denounced to the Société Républicaine des Arts by a fellow artist, the Jacobin fanatic Jean-Baptiste Wicar, for having painted “obscene works revolting to republican morality.” He was condemned by the Committee of Public Safety for these erotic undertones and for the frivolity of his work as well as his penchant for depicting the bourgeois in his early paintings. He was saved from literally a “fate worse than death” when his accusers searched his home and found his overtly flattering painting of Jean-Paul Marat, Triumph of Marat, the rabble-rousing radical journalist and politician and hero of the Revolution. Although Boilly survived the incident, his wife died during these anxious times. Boilly remarried in 1795.
In 1822 Boilly completed a painting entitled The Movings which highlighted the plight of the poor. In the painting, we see several families, who were unable to pay rent, and so were forced to move out of their homes with their belongings and travel the streets of Paris in search of new shelter. The painting depicts a palpable tension of a social drama and Boilly has created this by adding the opposing constituents in the setting. In the left background, we see the mirage-like image of the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Rome. Most of the figures in the work appear to be moving away from the Roman church. However, the owners of the front wagon, possibly a lowly and poor family that appears to have come from outside the city in search of work, move towards the distant mirage of the church and it is this connection that suggests that the arriving family’s search for a better financial future will prove futile, as well-paid job opportunities, like the church, are just an illusion. This was how Boilly saw life at that juncture of time.
Boilly was not only a fine artist but he was also a fine businessman and all through his career, he could change his artistic style to coincide with what was popular at the time with the public and made money by selling engraved reproductions of his genre paintings. One of the strangest form of his art was his depiction of grimacers. Grimacer is the French word meaning “to pull a face” and it fascinated Boilly, who produced many amusing works focused on the grimacers. The lithograph above, Les Amateurs de Tableaux (Lovers of Paintings) is part of his collection Recueil de Grimacers (Collection of Grimacers). In the painting, we see several grotesque looking characters, open-mouthed, brows furrowed as they concentrate on a small painting, some peering through monocles and spectacles. It was thought that Boilly was poking fun at the so-called “amateur art connoisseurs”.
In other similar works, the artist made many studies of facial expressions and the result was humorous but often cruel caricatures of contemporary society. In his lithograph, Les Grimacers, he even included himself (top left)
Boilly was a talented portrait artist and received many lucrative commissions for his portraits. It is said that he completed more than five thousand portraits during his lifetime. One of my favourites is one he completed around 1799 entitled The Artist’s Wife in His Studio, which featured his wife.
In the 1820’s Boilly was one of the first French artists to experiment with lithography to reproduce his paintings. He last exhibited at the Salon in 1824 and in the spring of 1828 he sold his collection of Dutch, Flemish, and French paintings and decorative objects, as well as thirty-seven of his own paintings. The monarchy of Louis-Philippe awarded him the cross of the Légion d’honneur in 1833. He died in Paris on January 4th 1845 aged eighty-four. His youngest son, Alphonse Boilly was a professional engraver who apprenticed in New York.
“…Everything that deceives may be said to enchant…”
Have you ever heard of the word trampantojo in relationship to art? Maybe if you are Spanish you will have come across this Spanish word, which means “sleight of hand” or “trick”. If I had asked you whether you knew what trompe-l’œil meant then maybe there would have been more hands up as this is a more common artistic term but similar in meaning to trampantojo. Trompe-l’œil is a French phrase which literally means “deceives the eye” and, in painting terms, refers to an artistic technique that deliberately has in mind to hoodwink the viewer into thinking that he or she is seeing the depicted object or person in 3-D when of course it is just a two dimensional representation of it. One looks blearily at the work desperately trying to fathom out the boundaries between the real and the imaginary.
The English artistic term often used for this technique is illusionism, something which creates an illusion of reality in a work of art. We often see such an illusion in still-life works, such as the Still Life with Oysters by the 17th century Dutch Golden Age painter, Pieter Claesz, in which we see the rind from a peeled lemon lying over the edge of a silver salver which itself overlaps the table, giving the painting a sense of depth as if it was a 3-D image.
This artistic trickery is not a new phenomenon as it is said to go back to around 5th century BC. Pliny the Elder in his AD 79 book, Naturalis Historia wrote about a myth involving an artistic contest, which happened around that time between the two greatest Greek painters of that era, Parrhasius and Zeuxis. Zeuxis was born in Heraclea sometime around 464 BCE and was said to be the student of Apollodorus, a painter who lived at the end of the 5th century BC and introduced great improvements in perspective and chiaroscuro. Parrhasius of Ephesus was a contemporary of Zeuxis. Both artists produced works on both wooden panels and frescoes on walls. Each of the painters believed that they were the greatest artist of the time and so they decided that once and for all to settle the matter with a painting contest, a kind of painting duel! They assigned themselves two areas of a wall, each invisible from the other, so that they might work in private. Each artist was then set the task of painting a mural. They also arranged for a set of knowledgeable people to become judges for the competition. The contest was all about producing a realistic depiction and the one thing they had in common they were both skilled in the technique we now refer to trompe-l’œil.
The artists completed their works, each of which was covered by a curtain. Zeuxis work was to be viewed first and he drew back the curtain. On the wall he had painted a simple bowl of mixed fruit. It was a beautifully painted still life work. Sunlight shone down on the pale green surface of the pears and made them seem moist and firm. The pomegranates Zeuxis had depicted were so well painted that the judges and onlookers could almost taste them. The audience was stunned by Zeuxis’ artistic mastery and whilst they stood before his work a bird, which had been perched on the wall above, flew down straight into the painted bowl of fruit, from which it had hoped to fly off with one of the succulent-looking grapes. The bird hit his head on the wall and fell to the ground, a victim of illusion. His work was the height of realism and Zeuxis was sure he had won, notwithstanding what his fellow artist, Parrhasius had conjured up.
The judges and the crowd, now led by Zeuxis, moved towards the curtained wall on which Parrahasius had painted his work. The people stared at the curtain, behind which they believed hid Parrahasius’ work. Zeuxis asked his rival to pull the curtain aside and so all could see the work behind it. Parrahasius told him and the crowd that it was not possible. His words baffled the onlookers. He then turned to them to say the curtain was actually the work he had completed. Although the work by Zeuxis fooled the bird by its realism, Parrahasius’ curtain had been so real that it had fooled Zeuxis, the judges and the crowd. Parrahasius won the day.
My blog today looks at a Spanish artist who used the trampantojo technique in a number of his works. He is the nineteenth century painter Pere Borrell del Caso. He was born in 1835 in the Catalonian village of Puigcerdà, which lies close to the Spanish-French border and some twenty kilometres south east of Andorra. His father was a carpenter and he taught his son the art of working with wood. He eventually left home and went to Barcelona where he attended art classes at the Escola de la Llotja, the prestigious School of Fine Arts in Barcelona. To earn some money for food, lodgings and to pay for his education he worked part time as a carpenter making wooden chests.
Although he was a portraitist as well as an accomplished painter of religious scenes, many of which are housed in the Museu Nacional d’ Art de Catalunya in Barcelona, he is probably best known for his trompe-l’œil works. Borrell was a great believer in realism in art and felt that the Romanticism genre of art, which was the cornerstone of art education at the Llotja in Barcelona, was not the way art should be taught. He set up his own academy of drawing and painting, the Sociedad de Bellas Artes, in which he sort to introduce his students to the world of realism in art and sought to influence his students with the works of the contemporary Catalan painters such as Romà Ribera, Ricard Canals and the muralist, Josep Maria Sert. He encouraged his students to leave the confines of the school and paint en plein air. Pere Borrell fervently believed in his teaching methods so much so that he turned down offers to become a professor of at the Llotja. It is thought that his rejection of the chair at the Llotja with its rigid academic stance to art tuition and its ruthless critique of the work of its students was foremost in his mind when he created one of his most famous paintings, the oil on canvas work, Fugint de la critica (Escaping Criticism) which he completed in 1874 and which is now part of a collection owned by the Bank of Spain.
This painting is a classic example of trampantojo. So how has the artist “converted” this work into a 3-D image? It is simply the way in which he has positioned the boy’s hands, feet, and head outside the painted canvas area and continued the depiction on the surrounding frame and it is that which makes it look like the boy is climbing out of the painting in a desperate attempt to escape. It is that which heightens the illusion. I have cropped the image (above) so that only the depiction on the canvas is shown and one can now see it becomes more of a normal two-dimensional image rather than a 3-D one. The depiction of the poorly dressed, bare-footed boy with his dishevelled hair, and terrified expression desperately trying to escape out of the picture is so realistic and the effect is further heightened by the trampantojo technique. Many believe that Borrell’s depiction mirrored his own desperate attempt to free himself from the confines of official academic training methods of art and the art critics of his day who championed the Romantic art of the time, with all its heroic figures and who were highly critical of art which depicted the not so pleasant “real” world. The title of the work is Escape from Criticism and this probably indicative of the struggle young artists had to go through with the constant bombardment of criticism from so-called knowledgeable art critics.
The second work of Pere Borrell I wanted to feature is one he completed in 1880 entitled Two Laughing Girls which can be found at the Museu del Modernisme Català (Museum for Catalan Modernism). In this painting, Borrell has ingeniously depicted the two girls partly entering our space.
He has achieved this effect by depicting the girl in the green dress leaning her elbow on the ornamental picture frame. The girl with a blue ribbon in her hair, in the background, extends her hand right hand towards us and her index finger almost seems as if it is coming out of the painting.
The elbow of the girl which seems to be extending out of the painting reminds me of Caravaggio’s work Supper at Emmaus in which the elbow of the man in the left foreground, with his back to us, seems to “come out’ of the picture. The effect is enhanced by the small splash of white on his green coat sleeve in way of his elbow. The 3-D effect is also enhanced by the positioning of the basket of fruit overhanging the edge of the table.
People are fascinated by the trompe-l’œil technique and there have been many exhibitions of works of art featuring works that have incorporated this method. Borrell’s Escaping Criticism featured in many exhibitions such as the Deceptions and Illusions, Five Centuries of Trompe l’ Oeil Painting, exhibition in 2002 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Again it was shown at the 2008 exhibition Lura Ogat at the National Museum of Stockholm. The following year the painting was exhibited in Japan at the Visual Deception exhibition in the Nagoya City Art Museum and at The Bunkamura Museum of Art in Tokyo. In 2010 the painting was displayed in the exhibition Täuschend Echt. Illusion und Wirklichkeit in der Kunst, held in the Bucherius Kunst Forum, a private art gallery in Hamburg.
Pere Borrell del Caso is probably not a household name outside of Catalonia but there is no doubt his trompe-l’œil paintings have, for many years, fascinated many observers.
My Daily Art Display today enters the world of trompe l’oeil. The term is French and literally means “trick of the eye”. It is a kind of artistic illusionism which gives the appearance of three-dimensional realism. This story of trompe l’oeil originated in ancient Greece. Pliny the Elder records in his Natural Histories the famous confrontation between two Greek 5th Century BC painters, Zeuxis and Parrhasius who were involved in a painting contest. Each would try to make a picture that produced a more perfect illusion of the real world. Zeuxis painted a likeness of grapes so natural that birds flew down to peck at them. Then his opponent, Parrhasius, brought in his picture covered in a cloth. Reaching out to lift the curtain, Zeuxis was stunned to discover he had lost the contest. What had appeared to be a cloth was in reality his rival’s painting.
The early precursors of modern trompe l’oeil appeared during the Renaissance, with the discovery of mathematically correct perspective. But the fooling of the eye to the point of confusion with reality only emerged with the rise of still-life painting in the Netherlands in the l7th century. Trompe l’oeil sets itself apart from ordinary decorative painting by its intent to mislead the observer, and it is this which sets it apart from ordinary still-life painting. The artist’s technical ability is meant to go undetected and, with use of perfect perspective, cleverly observed light and realistic colours, the ploy is to make the viewer believe that a flat surface is not actually flat, or that a space exists where there, in fact, is no space. A trompe l’oeil painting is one which shows apparently three dimensional objects and spaces in a way which the eye accepts as realism in the context of their surroundings.
The new genre soon spread throughout Europe and America. In American art, we have the Charles Willson Peale’s painting of 1795 entitled The Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle Peale and Titian Ramsay Peale), which is housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Peale executed this painting to prove that he was still one of the city’s preeminent artists. On a very large canvas, he made one of his rare full-length portraits, showing two of his sons on an enclosed spiral staircase. The high degree of detail and finish shows that the painting was undoubtedly intended to be a trompe l’oeil, an effect that Peale had never attempted before. To enhance the illusion, he set up the painting within a doorframe in his studio, with a real step in front. Rembrandt Peale, another son, recalled that his father’s friend George Washington, misled by Peale’s artifice, tipped his hat and greeted the two young men as he walked by!
Though highly regarded by collectors, from the beginning art theorists often rubbished trompe l’oeil as the lowest category of art. These “wise” men regarded it as a mere technical tour-de-force that did not require invention or intellectual thought. However in the l7th century, leading trompe l’oeil artists were not only receiving acclaim and acknowledgement from many quarters they were seen as also pushing the boundaries of the genre. My Daily Art Display’s featured painter today, Samuel van Hoogstraten was even awarded a medal for his services to Art by the Emperor Ferdinand III, the Holy Roman Emperor, after being so impressed by one of his trompe l’oeil paintings.
My Daily Art Display featured painting today today is entitled Man at the Window which Hoogstraten completed in 1653 and now hangs in the Kunsthistoriches Museum in Vienna. Look how the artist’s has splendidly portrayed the old man’s wrinkles and the graying of his beard. The old man’s brow is furrowed and his head is slightly angled. See how much detail the artist has given the window. On the sill outside the window he has added a small vase which enhances and emphasizes the depth in the painting. This window ledge is shaped by a stone wall surrounding the window. Look at the amazing amount of detail Hoogstraten has put into his depiction of the texture and surface of the stonework. You can almost believe that if you touched the surface of the painting it would feel like stone. It is quite amazing. Also on the windowsill, the artist has added a feather and a couple of leaves, one of which hangs over the side of the sill. We see the man’s head protruding from one of the panes in the window and this gives the appearance that he is actually coming out towards our space. Although it is a kind face there is something very haunting about it. One can easily imagine that as an observer passes this painting and glances at it, they suddenly imagine that they are being watched by this elderly but real person.
Today’s artist, besides his many trompe d’oeil works, completed many varied paintings and in a future blog I will look at the life of Samuel van Hoogstraten and another of his paintings. He was not only a very talented painter but also a writer on art. He painted genre scenes in the style of de Hooch and Metsu, and completed many portraits, but maybe he will be best remembered as a specialist in perspective effect.