About the art of painting a “trompe l’oeil”
Plato wrote that “everything that deceives may be said to enchant”. In the world of arts this idea is almost self-evident: the artist transforms paint into his or her perception of the world. The very fact that this version of reality is subjective forms the essence of its attraction to the viewer.
In his “Naturalis Historia” (Natural History), the Roman author Pliny the Elder (23 AD – 79 AD) tells the story of a competition between the 5th century BC Greek painters Zeuxis of Heraclea and Parrhasius of Ephesus (who settled in Athens).
Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes so real that birds flew down to peck at the painting. Confident of his success, Zeuxis asked Parrhasius to draw back the curtain covering his work, only to realise that the curtain itself was the painting, a painted illusion, and that Parrhasius had won the competition.
A “trompe l’oeil” is a convincing optical illusion, a game, a manipulative joke, a cheating device. Painting also: how can a painter represent in two dimensions the effect of depth, of a third dimension? How far would these painters go in playfully excelling in their art? How refined could culture get? Painters turned art into a game and a game into art.
These paintings were called “bedriegertjes”, that is “a small imposter, a small crook”. Their aim was not only to deceive by perfectly imitating the objects, but also to be identified as painted fiction.