Fooling the Eye

The cushions were a lot less comfortable than they look.

The cushions were a lot less comfortable than they look.

It’s probably not giving away a show-business secret to point out that the view from Frasier’s living room was not the actual skyline of Seattle.  The television show was filmed in Hollywood, so what was “outside” the window was a massive backdrop, called a translight, that had a photographic reproduction of the skyline of Seattle.  There was a daytime version of it and a nighttime version, but it was all inside Stage 25 at Paramount Studios.

Backdrops like that have been used in movies and television since the earliest days; set designers, Directors of Photography and technicians have been creating illusions of Canterbury and Casablanca for a long time.

Artists have been at it even longer in painting, sculpture and architecture, reproducing objects so faithfully that we’re tricked into thinking we’re seeing the real thing, at least for a moment.  According to Encyclopædia Britannica, an ancient Greek artist named Zeuxis “reportedly painted such realistic grapes that birds tried to eat them.”

This technique is known to the art world as trompe l’oeil, a French expression that literally means “fool the eye”.  To use its correct French pronunciation, it should sound like someone is trying to stuff a towel in your mouth while you say “trawmp-loy”.

Fairly common trompe l’oeil images include portraits of people whose elbows or heads seem to be protruding out of the frame.  Actual windows in old buildings are sometimes bordered by faux drapes.  The trick, of course, is to create a three-dimensional effect on a two-dimensional surface.

Seventeenth and 18th-century artists like Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Andrea Pozzo did spectacular ceiling frescoes in churches and palaces; often the illusion they created was that the top of the building was open to the sky.  (That effect didn’t work very well on rainy days.)

Pozzo was responsible for one of the most impressive examples of large-scale trompe l’oeil I’ve seen.  The Sant’Ignazio Church in Rome not only has three-dimensional saints seemingly circling overhead, Pozzo painted an incredibly realistic “dome” on the flat ceiling.  There’s a spot on the floor where you put your feet to get the maximum deceptive effect, and it’s so perfectly rendered, you’d swear that you’re looking at the inside of a dome.

Working on a much smaller scale, the 19th-century American still-life painter William Harnett was a master at creating illusions of everyday objects like musical instruments, envelopes — even bank notes.  Harnett was so good at making convincing reproductions of money, in 1886 he was arrested for counterfeiting.

In recent years there has been a lot of trompe l’oeil work in public spaces.  There are office buildings painted with ultra-realistic (but fake) balconies and other architectural embellishments.  There are trompe l’oeil pools in the middle of sidewalks, and statues that sure look like they are carved out of marble — nope, they’re painted on a flat surface.

Several months ago, the technique was even used in the interior of certain New York City subway cars (see photo, and click to enlarge).  Oh — and in case your eye is so fooled that you can’t tell, the man is real but the books are not.

4 responses to “Fooling the Eye

  1. Yvonne Keenoy Clark

    I have been reading your blog at bedtime when I get to a scary part of a mystery novel that I know will keep me awake. Now I awake Bill with laughter reading your comments on everything, especially art. The yellow duck story with picture of Sally made me cry with joy. Keep it up. Yvonne

    • Thanks, Yvonne — I appreciate your kind words (and my apologies to Bill). It was fun to tell the rubber ducky story, especially since the latest exchange had such a happy outcome. I wonder if the surgeon has read it yet and said to himself, “Oh, so that’s what it was about.”

      Thanks again.

  2. Hi Tom, recently received a photo of a trompe. Pretty cool. Tried posting it here but it’s not allowed, so here’s a very long link:

    I’d talk about college football but I’m already in mourning.

    • You’re right about that hyper-realistic lion — cool. As for college football, several of my Top-25 picks are looking pretty shaky after the first week of the season, so I feel your pain.

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