trompe d’oeil

trompe l’oeil

One of the earliest things you learn about at art school, is trompe l’œil, a favourite of teachers and students alike it is a celebrated demonstration of artistic talent. Besides, students love the chance to be cheeky. “Rembrandt’s students are reputed to have played a cruel joke on the great master when they painted some highly realistic gold coins on the floor of his studio. The great master was forever poor and much in need of funds, and so his pupils hoped to trick him into scrabbling around on his hands and knees trying to pick them up” 1. As mentioned in a previous article, the illusion of having drapery or a curtain partially covering a work is a time-honoured favourite of many artists. The Dutch Golden Age is a treasure trove of trompe l’oeil curtains, but the tradition dates back through a boom in early Christian artwork, but the origin story is given to us of course, from Ancient Greece, wherein two skilled artists submitted a painting in competition. “Zeuxis produced a magnificent still life, which featured grapes that were so lifelike that a bird flew down to peck at one. Not a bad result. However, Zeuxis unwittingly and by implication admitted defeat when he turned to his rival Parrhasius and asked him to draw back the curtain of from of his own painting in order to reveal its subject in its entirety” 2.

Escaping_criticism-by_pere_borrel_del_caso1874

“Escaping Criticism” by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874

So in my early art student days I too was enamoured with the illusion and trickery of a trompe l’œil, admiring above all the proficiency of the craftsman to create something in two dimensions which your eye believes is three. Creating, through skill, a challenge of our senses and our perception of the world. There are many fantastic examples of trompe l’œil throughout the ages, one of the most beloved being Escaping Criticism by Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874. However, the example given to me, which sparked a great passion in my heart, and of which I had the utmost privilege of beholding in person recently, The Goldfinch (Carel Fabritius), 1654.

fabritius-the-goldfinch1654

The Goldfinch (Carel Fabritius), 1654.

When the Maruritshuis was under renovation during my first trip to Holland, I was so disappointed to have missed the opportunity to view some really wonderful artwork. When I returned home I found out that a “treasures” collection had traveled to North America and I considered making the 10 hour drive to get a peek at the collection when it arrived at the Frick. My patience was rewarded last fall, however when I went back to view the entire collection at the newly opened Mauritshuis in the Hague.

On a quick sidenote, I always love looking for digital images of paintings. Ideally you can find an extremely high res version supplied online by the museum, but sometimes it’s quite hillarious to do a google image search. For very famous paintings, you will find all sorts of stuff showing up. For example, if you google image search the Mona Lisa you will find a great number of hillarious chops. But when you search for a small painting which is fairly unknown to the public  but much beloved by art aficionados, this is what you get. Zillions of copies of the same image, uninterrupted. All with slightly varying levels of colour and contrast, depending on who took the picture and what they did to it.

fab-google2

Spot the difference!

The Goldfinch is a small painting. It’s only 13.2 by 9.0 in (33.5 by 22.8 cm) but I hesitate to refer to it as very small, in context. It is painted on very thick board, which is speculated to have been part of a cupboard door or panel 3. It displays a goldfinch, atop a wall perch, its captivity evident by the thin chain which attaches it. “In the 17th century, goldfinches were popular pets because they could be trained to draw water from a bowl with a miniature bucket. The Dutch title of the painting pertains to the bird’s nickname puttertje, which refers to this custom and translates literally as ‘little weller’” 4.

Carel_Fabritius_-_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project

Self Portrait (Carel Fabritius), 1645

Fabritius leaves very few paintings to us, perhaps only a dozen. He died young, perishing along with most of his paintings in a magazine explosion 5. However a very distinct personal style was carved out in his few years, the few remaining paintings marked with simple beauty in quiet and solitary moments, beautifully presented in impressive perspective and wonderful palette. Fabritius can be considered the stylistic connection between Rembrandt, his master, and Vermeer, his pupil. Fabritius experimented with perspective and lighting, both expertly executed in the Goldfinch. Though the majority of Rembrandt’s pupils emulated his style, Fabritius was interested in delicately lit subjects with bright, warm backgrounds, while retaining the gestural brushwork of his subjects. The uniqueness of Fabritius’ style which in turn inspired Vermeer is his honest and unembellished observation of the world around him, giving faithful devoted attention to the lighting and feeling of the scene. “Moving away from the Renaissance focus on iconography, Fabritius became interested in the technical aspects of painting. His personal style is “marked by an exquisite feeling for cool colour harmonies and (even though he often worked on a small scale) unerring handling of a loaded brush” 6. “He painted the goldfinch with visible brush strokes. The wing he indicated with thick yellow paint, where he put in with the back of his brush a scratch” 7.

hetputtertje-detail

get back! I’ve got a fully loaded brush!

Fabritius also experimented with spatial effects and forced perspective. A major goal of Dutch paintings at the time, especially those to be hung in homes for personal use, was to blend with the room. We can imagine the work hanging on the wall, or perhaps inlaid into a cabinet door, hearkening at the simple homely visual of the captive pet, the thick paint vibrating with intensity in emulation of the birds little heart, the glint of light off its round eye, and streak of black and yellow a familiar visual cue. The gestural application of the paint and the commonality of the subject matter gives the viewer the impression the painting hanging on the wall is instead a glimpse of the real thing. Like the wall calendar by the phone in the kitchen, it’s a familiar and homely element, something we are used to seeing out of the corner of our eye without taking time to observe it closely.

1, 2 Green, Malcom. “Book of Lies” London: Essential Works, 2005.

3 Frederik J. Duparc, “Carel Fabritius (1622-1654) His Life and Work” in Carel Fabritius 1622-1654, Zwolle, 2004.

4, 7 http://www.mauritshuis.nl/nl-nl/verdiep/de-collectie/kunstwerken/het-puttertje-605/

5 http://www.the-art-world.com/history/fh_fabritius.htm

6 http://www.essentialvermeer.com/dutch-painters/masters/cfabritiusbase.html

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bedriegertje

Continuing with some more Dutch Reformation Interior church paintings, there is another one at the Louvre which caught my eye, but not because of what you could see, but what you couldn’t.

rideau

Intérieur d’église à demi masqué par un rideau
(Hendrick Cornelisz van (der) Vliet), 1660

The small work depicts another Protestant church interior, again with people chatting, dogs running around, graves being dug, but painted in the absolute foreground is a curtain, covering the rightmost area or the scene. The piece itself is painted so that it appears to be an arched panel with the curtain on top, covering the work. The arch helps to give the curtain that extra boost to make is seem like it’s really not part of the scene, but resting on top like something someone would add later. It hearkens at the tradition of covering paintings with curtains to protect them from sunlight and dust, only drawn to observe briefly and then covered again.

exs

i have to provide photo credits for things not in the public domain. lame. (below)

The technique is called a trompe l’oeil, deceiving the eye, an object painted in a way to trick you into thinking it’s in three dimensions. You’ve probably seen many examples before, such as chalk art, wall murals or stuff like faux leather or marble.

Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk, Delft, with the tomb of William the Silent, by Hendrik van Vliet

The interior of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft with
the Tomb of Prince William the Silent of Orange (1533-1584)
(Hendrick Cornelisz van Vliet) 1660

Van Vliet used this trick in many of his works, especially ones depicting interior church scenes, though van Vliet was definitely not the first to employ the trompe l’oeil curtain. It has its roots in religious paintings, as “can be observed on miniatures and bas-reliefs from late Antiquity and which became a topos of representations of Mary” 1.

747px-RAFAEL_-_Madonna_Sixtina

I’ll take “creepy faces in paintings in the background
that are bad for late night blogging
” for 400

You might recognize the famous cherubs in Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (1512), but the whole work itself is quite lovely, and the curtains act as a rich and velvety frame for the posed figures, but not as part of the scene. The curtains are depicted as hanging on a thin rod, which is bending under the weight of the drapes. This realistic touch adds to the idea that the curtains aren’t part of the scene. If they were they would be idealized, quite like the rest of the work.

Matthias_Grünewald_-_The_Annunciation_-_WGA10750

let’s play find baby Jesus. hint : in this one he’s a bird

The curtains containing the scene hearken at the practice of having the ciborium or other parts of the church covered by curtains to be revealed at certain points during services. Another example of this is the leftmost panel in the second state of Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, “the Annunciation” (1515), though, in this scene the curtains are painted into the scene with two panels used to frame the scene, and to indicate the altar.

van_Vliet-InteriorOudeKerk_PietInterior of the Oude Kerk, Delft, with the Tomb of Piet Hein.
(Hendrick Cornelisz. van Vliet) 1653

The curtains also serve as a way to literally draw attention to a particular section of the work, to frame it. They can act as a vignette to create emphasis on the interior of the picture, or to highlight elements to which your attention should be placed. “The drawn curtain and drape have obvious theatrical associations. Both imitate the curtains over the central archway of the Renaissance stage, which are suddenly pulled back at key moments in the drama to reveal important scenes and characters. Dutch painters often used the curtain to suggest dramatic revelation without actually reproducing a theatre” 2.

girlreadingletter-openwindow

“allowing him only the parerga, the indicators of the representation,
in the feigned frame, curtain, and the internal spectator” 3

The curtain in Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (1659) is a similar effect to the Church Interior in that it serves to hint at the preciousness of the scene as a cherished artwork would be protected by a curtain, but also helps to provide some shelter and seclusion to the scene as if we are peeking in at a quiet or intimate moment. Similarly, Metsu’s Woman Reading a Letter (1666) uses the curtain as a way to provide details about the scene, as we get to experience the moment when the curtain is drawn.

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“A lady sits reading a letter that her maid has presumably just delivered. The maid explicitly calls attention to the seascape on the wall by pulling aside the curtain that covers it. The maid’s quasi-explanatory gesture suggests a connection between the seascape and the contents of the letter” 4. The curtain helps us to gather some information about context or the situation the work depicts.

Houckgeest-InteriorOudeKerk1548Interior of the Oude Kerk Delft, with the Pulpit of 1548
(Gerard Houckgeest) 1651

Like other Dutch paintings from this time, the clues in the work are given to help the viewer translate the work into a story, so the curtain acts not only as a visual element but gives information to the viewer. Protestant reformation in the Netherlands influenced the inspiration and content of artworks, which transitioned from the sacred and public works to a more private and secular audience. This shift also influenced the connotations of the painted curtain. “The trompe-l’oeil curtain gradually loses its sacred connotation, retaining only that of metapictorality”5.

FlowerCurtainart jokes : priceless

The painted curtain in Dutch genre paintings was sometimes referred to as “ bedriegertje” (little trickster) from its ability to trick the viewer into thinking it’s a real curtain covering the work. A very fine example of pure trickery is the “Trompe l’oeil Still Life with Flower Garland and Curtain”, a work co-created by Adrian van der Spelt & Franz van Mieris in 1658. Van der Spelt was said to be an expert at painting realistic floral still lifes, and van Mieris an expert at painting fabric textures, so the two got together to create a work of visual richness, and is one of my all time favourite works. Not because it says something important per se, but that these guys decided it would just be really cool to make this painting.

eavesdro-maes

you bedriegertje !

The curtain could also be used to draw attention to the fact that it indeed hides aspects of the work permanently from the viewer. For example, Eavesdropper with a Scolding Woman (Nicolaes Maes), 1655, is a interior scene quite typical of the times, peering in to someone’s everyday life. We can see partially up the stairs into a corridor, where a woman appears to be scolding someone but a great amount of the work (including the subject of her fury) is hidden by the painted curtain. “By opening the curtain, the painter literally reveals a badly managed household: the maid spends more time listening than working, and the mistress does not create domestic harmony” 6. So, not only does the curtain act to draw attention to the remaining figures and literally hides certain elements of the scene, it also helps us to gain information by what is missing.

Interior of the Nieuwe Kerk in Delft with the Tomb of William thTomb of William the Silent in the Nieuwe Kerk, Delft, with an Illusionistic Curtain
(Emanuel de Witte) 1653

1, 3, 5 Van Eck, Caroline and Stijn Bussels. Theatricality in Early Modern Art and Archetecture.  Chichester, West Sussex: Blackwell Publishing, 2011.

2, 4 Hollander, Martha. An Entrance for the Eyes : Space & Meaning in Seventeenth-Century Dutch Art. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002.

6 http://www.wga.hu/html_m/m/maes/eavesdro.html

Photo credits

truck : Karine Magaton http://apndv.free.fr/Sculpture%20geante.htm

flatiron building, Toronto : 1000thingstoronto http://1000thingstoronto.com/14-flatiron-building/

marble : biphut deco http://hiphutdeco.com/blog/tag/faux-marble/

painting : Andrea Mantegna : Oculus on the ceiling of the Spouses Chamber, castle of San Giorgio in Mantoa, Italy