What Is Trompe L’Oeil?

Trompe l’oeil is a French term that translates as deceiving the eye. It’s an artistic method of creating visual illusions.

Dec 28, 2023By Anastasiia S. Kirpalov, MA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art

what is trompe l oeil


Trompe l’oeil is a technique of painting that makes painted objects appear realistic and three-dimensional. Since its emergence in ancient times—although the term itself appeared in the 1800s—it developed further into the domains of architecture and even fashion. Read on to learn more about the fascinating history, methods, and aims of trompe l’oeil in the history of art. Here’s everything you need to know.


Trompe L’Oeil: The History of Optical Illusion in Art

trompe loeil roman floor mosaic
Fragment of trompe l’oeil Roman mosaic of an unswept floor, c. 1st century BCE, via Atlas Obscura


Trompe l’oeil is an artistic method of creating a visual illusion that makes elements of the painting come to life in the eyes of the viewer. Trompe l’oeil is a French term that translates as deceiving the eye, which explains its essence. The earliest implementation of trompe l’oeil in art refers to ancient Greece and Rome. The frescoes found on the walls of the houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried in ash for centuries, had painted windows and arches on them, visually enlarging the space.


Trompe l’oeil was and remains essentially a decorative method that requires great skill and precision. Still, not every realistic painting can be called a trompe l’oeil. The core part of the trompe l’oeil is the intent to deceive, a deliberate attempt to confuse the viewer and make them reach out for the non-existent objects and spaces.


trompe loeil borell girls painting
Two Laughing Girls by Pere Borell del Caso, 1880, via Wikimedia Commons


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In the nineteenth century, more artists started to experiment with optical effects and illusions. Some of them, like the Impressionists, aimed to unlock new ways of seeing and uncover new perspectives. After the invention of photography, many painters thought that instead of rivaling the latest technology, they could focus on something unavailable to them, like emotion and feeling. Other artists, however, aimed at maximal realism, competing not with technology but with nature itself.


Catalonian artist Pere Borell del Caso was a successful portraitist who nonetheless became famous for his series of trompe l’oeil paintings. On his canvases, giggling girls point fingers at the viewer, and boys escape paintings through their frames. An accomplished artist in his time, Borell nonetheless rarely gets mentioned in art history books. The reason for that could be that his artworks were curious decorations made to amuse the guests and spark a conversation in a living room. The practical entertaining purpose of these paintings separated them from the conceptual and experimental art movements of Borell’s time.


Mannerism and Illusion

arcimboldo water painting
Water by Giuseppe Archimboldo, 1566, via Washington University in Saint Louis


During the Middle Ages, the art of illusion fell out of favor. Medieval art was mostly two-dimensional and had little interest in realistic rendering of space. Still, trompe l’oeil made its comeback in the sixteenth century with the art movement called Mannerism. Some art historians do not consider Mannerism a separate phenomenon, recognizing it as a part of the Baroque art that would follow. Still, Mannerism was all about visual effects, expressive gestures, puzzling compositions, and bold experiments. While the famous Giuseppe Arcimboldo constructed portraits from painted fruit, vegetables, and seafood, others dived into the imitation of architectural forms and sculptures.


mantegna oculus fresco
Ceiling Oculus in Palazzo Ducale by Andrea Mantegna, c.1474, via Web Gallery of Art


The most popular examples of trompe l’oeil of the Mannerist and Baroque eras could be found in churches. The artists created illusions of higher ceilings and domes reaching the sky, with angels and the Virgin Mary looking from above. From sacred spaces, the art of deceiving the eye migrated to the villas and mansions, with hosts surprising their guests with hidden passages, sculptures, and arches that never existed. Such a trick was not only a fashionable decoration but a symbol of status and an element of entertainment.


Yet, many artists and theoreticians criticized trompe l’oeil paintings for trying to appear as something they were not. For them, such imitation was not an ironic joke but an actual, yet badly organized, deceit and a futile act of artistic vanity. One of the most common yet overlooked uses for trompe l’oeil was theater set design. The backdrops on the stage used forced perspective to turn a small space into a vast field, a sea, or a lush garden.


Modern Artists and The Art of Deceiving

braque bottle collage
Bottle, Glass, and Newspaper by Georges Braque, 1914, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


After elaborate Baroque decorations fell out of fashion, the trompe l’oeil did not disappear. For a considerable period, it existed in the form of imitated textures of wood or marble in painted compositions or incredibly realistic still-lifes. Everything changed radically in the nineteenth century. With the development of industrial mass production, the competition between manufacturers became unprecedented. Advertising became the primary way to attract customers to the brand, with trompe l’oeil becoming immensely popular in the package design.


The new generation of artists also revived the practice of trompe l’oeil, but their reasons differed from entertainment or marketing. The development of psychiatry made people focus on the ambiguous, subconscious, and questionable: trompe l’oeil was the perfect way to explore illusions created by the human psyche.


magritte treachery painting
The Treachery of Images by Rene Magritte, 1929, via LACMA, Los Angeles


Trompe l’oeil was immensely popular among the Cubists and the Surrealists. In the early days of Cubism, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso imitated paper and wood in their compositions. Soon they made a step further—or back, depending on interpretation—and implemented actual newspaper cutouts, fabrics, and pieces of furniture.


The Surrealists moved even further. While some artists like Salvador Dali used trompe l’oeil and optical illusions in their works, others, such as Rene Magritte, developed the idea of visual deception even further. Magritte believed that a painted image in itself was deceptive since it was not equal to an object it was depicting but merely imitated it.


Fashion and Trompe L’Oeil

schiaparelli bow sweater
Bow Sweater designed by Elsa Schiaparelli, 1927, via Philadelphia Museum of Art


After establishing itself in the domains of visual art and architecture, the concept of trompe l’oeil found its way into fashion design. Elsa Schiaparelli, the great pioneer of haute couture, was the designer who first thought of incorporating illusion into garment design. In 1927, Schiaparelli designed a sports sweater with a bow on its neckline, yet it was not sewn on the piece but knit directly into it. Apart from Schiaparelli’s long interest in ambiguous and original fashion, this decision had a more practical purpose.


Several years prior to the invention, Vogue magazine reported that sports fashion was occupying three-quarters of the Parisian fashion market due to its practicality for the more active lifestyles of contemporary women. Schiaparelli’s goal was to make sportswear elegant without compromising comfort and utility. A group of Armenian women hired by Schiaparelli made sweaters using the traditional hand-knitting technique. Schiaparelli’s way of promoting her work was by wearing it herself. So, she attended a dinner party in her new bowtie sweater, with a string of orders following immediately.


In recent years, Maison Schiaparelli fashion house has gone through a massive revival after more than five decades of silence. Daniel Roseberry, the creative director of the brand, aimed at reviving the legacy of Elsa Schiaparelli in the new age while avoiding direct imitations of her work. Still, one of the collections designed by Roseberry included his version of the trompe l’oeil bow sweater.


trompe loeil gaultier dot dress
Cyber Dot Dress designed by Jean-Paul Gaultier, Ready-to-Wear Fall-Winter 1995, via Dazed


A lot has changed since the invention of Elsa Schiaparelli, so the trompe l’oeil patterns do not shock the public like they used to. Over the years, the trompe l’oeil in fashion became one of the design staples. The most popular illusion is the one of a naked body instead of a garment, found in the works of legendary designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Jean-Paul Gaultier. Gaultier, in fact, went further than simply replicating his trompe l’oeil bodies. He constructed his silhouettes from a pattern of brightly colored dots, creating an illusion of depth and volume. His 1995 Fall-Winter collection represented imaginary amazons of the cyberpunk future, implementing technology into attire.


Trompe L’Oeil in Contemporary Art

oldenburg pastry installation
Pastry Case I by Claes Oldenburg, 1961-62, via MoMA, New York


Despite concepts and ideas changing, the idea of trompe l’oeil remained present on the art scene, taking different forms. One of them could be found in Pop Art, particularly in the works of Swedish-American sculptor Claes Oldenburg. Oldenburg created copies of burgers, pastries, or sandwiches from inedible materials like plaster and cheap house paint. At first glance, the sculptures seem mouthwatering, yet, after a moment of examination, they disappoint and perplex the viewer.


jr pyramid collage
The Secret of the Great Pyramid by JR, 2019, via Le Parisien


In recent years, trompe l’oeil once again lost the favor of galleries and museums but found itself a new domain. Contrasting with the hierarchical art world fueled by money and power, street art is a rather democratic and welcoming field. Trompe l’oeil artworks found in the streets can be dramatic and eye-catching, like the giant sinkhole in London, or something more elegant in the form of murals. The famous street artist JR often uses trompe l’oeil in his gigantic collages and murals that augment and distort reality.

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By Anastasiia S. KirpalovMA Art History, Modern & Contemporary Art Anastasiia holds a MA degree in Art history from the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Previously she worked as a museum assistant, caring for the collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. She specializes in topics of early abstract art, nineteenth-century gender, spiritualism and occultism. Outside of her work, she is interested in cult studies, criminology, and fashion history.