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Where Paradox Rules: The Delightful Trickery of Trompe L'Oeil

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October 18, 2002

Where Paradox Rules: The Delightful Trickery of Trompe L'Oeil


De Scott Evans's Homage to Parrot, c. 1890,
is among the paintings on view in the
National Gallery of Art's exhibition
Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil Painting.

Seeing is believing—most of the time. So when we see something that doesn't exist or isn't exactly what it appears to be—a mirage, an optical illusion, a counterfeit—we are shaken, puzzled, and, often, quite amused by the deception. Such is the experience of viewing a trompe l'oeil painting, says Paul Staiti, Professor of Fine Arts on the Alumnae Foundation, who has written an essay titled "Con Artists: Harnett, Haberle, and Their American Accomplices" on the style, the name of which translates to "deceive the eye." The piece will be published in a catalogue accompanying Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil Painting, an exhibition scheduled to run October 13–March 2 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The show, which will include approximately 115 paintings by masters of the genre, will be the most comprehensive treatment to date of trompe l'oeil.

Focusing on works by William Michael Harnett, John Haberle, and other nineteenth-century trompe l'oeil artists, Staiti describes the genre's tradition of luring viewers, tricking them, and creating "a vexation" that is "paradoxically pleasurable." Harnett's painting Old Violin, he says, so agitated and attracted crowds at the thirteenth Cincinnati Industrial Exposition in 1886 that a policeman was detailed to stand beside the picture and prevent viewers from trying to take down its fiddle and bow. Of Haberle's A Bachelor's Drawer, Staiti writes, "the illusionistic drawer . . . is nailed shut, as if to dare viewers to get in to some nonexistent inner space . . . in the center is a painted cigar box lid attached to the drawer by two leather hinges. Odds and ends are stuffed into the edges of the lid, indicating that there is a way to get into the 'space' behind the lid. Haberle even attached a pull cord to the lid, as if requesting viewers from Chicago or anywhere else to try to open it up and get to some suggested deep space that is, of course, not there."

Staiti explains that other artists went even further in blending presentation with representation. Jefferson David Chalfant, for example, created a picture of two stamps, one painted and the other real, including a (painted) newspaper clipping below that read, "Mr. Chalfant proposes to paste a real stamp on the canvas beside his painting, and the puzzling question will be 'Which is which?' "

Elite critics opposed American trompe l'oeil artists, charging them with creating worthless imitations easily outdone by photographs, seeking to deceive, and focusing on common objects that distracted people from contemplating beautiful or great things. John Ruskin wrote of trompe l'oeil, "The mind derives its pleasure, not from the contemplation of a truth, but from the discovery of falsehood. . . . The degree of pleasure depends on the degree of difference and the perfection of the resemblance, not on the nature of the thing resembled." Ruskin was right, says Staiti, that the pleasure of experiencing a painting by Harnett or Haberle is in "an expanded moment of passage from suspecting a picture is a deception to knowing a picture is a deception." The critical point of trompe l'oeil, he writes, is that "it is irony, not truth or beauty, that is triumphant. Paradox rules."

At MHC, Staiti teaches courses in American art, American studies, and film studies. His publications have focused on artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, still-life painter William Michael Harnett, colonial portraitist John Singleton Copley, portraits of nineteenth-century American capitalists at the New York Chamber of Commerce, and the sea pictures of Winslow Homer painted during the artist's later years. He has also curated an exhibition on Copley for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

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