Trompe-l’œil / Deceive The Eye

In painting it’s the representation of an object with such verisimilitude as to deceive the viewer concerning the material reality of the object.

Fresco with trompe l'œil dome painted on low vaulting, Jesuit Church, Vienna, by Andrea Pozzo, 1703
Fresco with trompe l’œil dome painted on low vaulting, Jesuit Church, Vienna, by Andrea Pozzo, 1703

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 Origins and History

This idea appealed to the ancient Greeks who were newly emancipated from the conventional stylizations of earlier art. Zeuxis, for example, reportedly painted such realistic grapes that birds tried to eat them.

The technique was also popular with Roman muralists.

Still life with glass bowl of fruit and vases
Roman painting. Second Pompeian Style, from the House of Julia Felix in Pompeii.

Although trompe l’oeil never achieved the status of a major artistic aim, European painters from the early Renaissance onward occasionally fostered illusionism by painting false frames out of which the contents of a still life or portrait appeared to spill or by creating windowlike images suggesting actual openings in the wall or ceiling.

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Although “trompe l’oeil” embraces all illusionary artistic devices across painting, sculpture, architecture and the decorative arts, the two most common types are:

  1. Architectural painting: (quadratura) that creates the optical illusion of (usually) higher ceilings;
  2. Easel painting: that creates the visual illusion of depth in the picture – either receding into the distance, or jutting out towards the viewer.
Giotto’s Fly

Most trompe l’oeil art is humorous – a “game” artists play with observers to raise questions about the nature of art and perception, as illustrated by the story about the famous Florentine painter Giotto (1267-1337), which appears in Giorgio Vasari’s celebrated book Lives of the Artists (1550).

One day, Giotto decided to play a trick on the older artist Cimabue (1240-1302), to whom he was apprenticed. So when the latter’s back was turned Giotto painted a tiny fly onto the mural which his master was painting. Cimabue then went beserk trying to brush away the fly, before he realized it was an illusion.

Early Renaissance Trompe l’oeil

The more realistic the painting, the more deceptive the Trompe l’oeil.

Not surprisingly therefore, artists only began to excel at this form of illusionism once they had mastered the application of linear perspective, and were able to create true-to-life paintings. This occurred during the Early Renaissance in Italy.

One of the first instances of illusionistic Christian art from this time was the picture of a cavernous chapel which forms the basis for The Holy Trinity (1428) by Masaccio.

Masaccio, Holy Trinity, c.1426-1428, fresco, Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.
Masaccio, Holy Trinity, c.1426-1428, fresco, Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence, Italy.

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High Renaissance and Mannerist Trompe l’oeil

The Venetian painters Vittorio Carpaccio (1460–1525) and Jacopo de Barbari (c.1440-1516) were the first artists of the Renaissance in Venice to add small trompe-l’oeil features to their paintings, whimsically exploring the boundary between image and reality.

A fly might appear to have settled on the frame of the painting, or a fake curtain might appear to conceal part of the picture, or someone might appear to be clambering out of the picture frame altogether.

Baroque Trompe l’oeil

Illusionistic art, especially quadratura and other architectural devices, achieved its apogee during the period of Baroque art. Famous examples of taken from Baroque painting include:

  • Caravaggio‘s Supper at Emmaus (1602), in which he tries to project his subjects through the canvas and out into our own space;
  • Triumph and Apotheosis of St Ignatius (1691-4, San Ignazio, Rome) by the great Andrea Pozzo (1642-1709), perhaps the greatest of all quadraturisti. Illusionism also spread to the Spanish colony of Naples (then the second biggest city in Europe, after Paris) during the mid-17th century.
The illustionistic perspective of Andrea Pozzo's trompe-l'oeil dome at Sant'Ignazio (1685) creates an illusion of an actual architectural space on what is, in actuality, a slightly concave painted surface.
Andrea Pozzo’s trompe-l’oeil dome at Sant’Ignazio (1685).

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Meantime, in the Netherlands, the meticulously realistic genre painting of the Dutch Realist School, during the 17th century, gave ample scope for illusionism.

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Focus on Quadratura

Perspective theories in the 17th century allowed a more fully integrated approach to architectural illusion, which when used by painters to “open up” the space of a wall or ceiling is known as quadratura.

Trompe-l’œil paintings became very popular in Flemish and later in Dutch painting in the 17th century arising from the development of still life painting.

A fanciful form of architectural trompe-l’œil, quodlibet, features realistically rendered paintings of such items as paper knives, playing cards, ribbons, and scissors, apparently accidentally left lying around.


Fictional trompe-l’œil appears in many Looney Tunes, such as the Road Runner cartoons, where, for example, Wile E. Coyote paints a tunnel on a rock wall, and the Road Runner then races through the fake tunnel. This is usually followed by the coyote’s foolishly trying to run through the tunnel after the road runner, only to smash into the hard rock-face.

This sight gag was employed in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Trompe l’oeil, in the form of “illusion painting“, is also used in contemporary interior design, where illusionary wall paintings experienced a Renaissance since around 1980.

Significant artists in this field are the German muralist Rainer Maria Latzke, who invented, in the ’90s, a new method of producing illusion paintings, the Frescography and the English artist Graham Rust.

The early, 19th century and modern masters
  • Masaccio
  • Luca Giordano
  • Carlo Crivelli
  • Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts
  • Franciscus Gijsbrechts
  • Charles Willson Peale
  • Andrea Pozzo
  • Vincenzo Scamozzi
  • Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
  • Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten
  • Henry Alexander
  • Aaron Bohrod
  • Salvador Dalí
  • Walter Goodman
  • John Haberle
  • William Harnett
  • Claude Raguet Hirst
  • René Magritte
  • John F. Peto

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