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Trompe l'Oeil: The Art of Illusion


While Americans did not originate the concept of illusionistic still life painting, one has to concede that it was in nineteenth century America that such painting truly came into its own. The work of William Michael Harnett at mid century would forever define trompe líoeil (fool the eye) painting and establish a rich tradition. He then passed it down to John Frederick Peto, Victor Dubreuil, Claude Hirst, Alexander Pope, and into twentieth and twenty-first century painting, which is clearly underscored in the exhibition Trompe LíOeil: The Art of Illusion by contemporary Americans.

What is it about trompe líoeil that continues to generate such interest? When Harnett opened his studio to enthusiastic patrons to view what he called his ìoffice boards,î perhaps it was the artistic ìsleight of handî or optical trickery that won their minds if not their hearts. Critics even then raised questions about his artís apparent lack of any kind of moral statement in favor of mere imitation of reality. The fact that these works sustained significance through time points to Harnett as not merely a magician with a brush but a master of idea manipulation and formalist of the greatest order. Few artists understood the power of visual organization or possessed such a flair for the juxtaposition of visual fascinating objects and clippings. His choice of items chosen always possessed what he called ìthe rich effect that age and usage gives.î Harnettís formula would of course be tempered by the hand of Peto in his application of a more poetic approach to the subject that seems to push the genre of trompe líoeil toward a more metaphysical feel. Perhaps we find in the work of Peto a more direct line to comtemporary still life painting with its emphasis upon conceptualóthe nostalgic or culturally changed item stuck to the board, placed in the box or on the shelf. Claude Raguet Hirst, one of the earliest recognized women painters, and National Academicians, like her New York City neighbor William Harnett, painted ìbachelor still lifes.î Pipes, tobacco, well-worn books and matches were the visual subject, but her remarkable ability with the watercolor medium gave the work a unique and quiet presence.

To view contemporary trompe líoeil painting as somehow being on some anachronistic tract is to miss the point of the current direction. One need only examine the work of the contemporary counterparts of Hirst, Peto and Harnett to understand that new trompe líoeil, whicle carrying on the tradition of the nineteenth century American masters, views the genre through the filter of the modern era. Much indeed has happened since Harnettís After the Hunt series. The great artist has always responded honestly to his time. Factually, the landscape of modernism with its diverse aesthetic positions has made its impact. Because of Monet, Cezanne, Picasso, Matisse and Duchamp the universe of the artist is a different place. Gary Erbe, as other contemporary painters, must and does deal with the innovation and aesthetic points of view of the modern establishment. Accepting certain ideas, altering others, while rejecting some outright, Erbe has managed to present trompe líoeil on his own terms as a twenty-first century artist. His still lifes, often autobiographical, pay homage to the technical mastery of Harnett yet often incorporate concepts of surrealistic levitation, expressionistic surface and a warm allegiance to aspects of American Scene painting of the 1930s and the Pop of the 1960s. Visually exciting, Erbeís paintings along with the other artists included in the exhibition exploit our sense of history, re-awakening the formalistic concerns of their nineteenth century counterparts while offering up fresh insights both conceptually and perceptually.

Clearly this exhibition of artists associated with the Trompe LíOeil Society of America represents American painting at its technical best. More than that, it shows that American painting remains true to the tenets that first gave it life.

Far from being a superficial recollection of an earlier vision, the new trompe líoeil painters remind us that significant art can indeed draw strength and inspiration from an earlier milestone. These contemporary still life painters recognize that great and enduring art is always reflective of the time in which it is created. In this wonderful and strikingly beautiful exhibition, they have offered us the best of both worlds.


Louis A. Zona, Director, The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
Gary T. Erbe, Guest Curator         

Editor's note: Featuring 65 works by American artists, this exhibition at the J. Wayne Stark Galleries, April 28 - June 12, 2005, focuses on a painting technique known as "trompe l'oeil," which literally means "fool the eye." These illusionistic still life paintings in oil, acrylic, and gouache bring a contemporary spin to an ancient tradition. The paintings focus on commonplace objects presented with such technical brilliance that the objects seem to float above or project from the canvas. The tour is developed and managed by Smith Kramer Fine Arts Services, Kansas City, Missouri.

The tour itinerary [1] is:

February 14 - March 24, 2005
Indian Hills Community College
525 Grandview Avenue
Ottumwa, Iowa
April 24 - June 19, 2005
J. Wayne Stark Gallery
Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas
July 10 - September 4, 2005
The Haggin Museum
1201 North Pershing Avenue
Stockton, Californi
September 25 - November 20, 2005
Huntsville Museum of Art
300 Church Street South
Huntsville, Alabama
December 2, 2005 - January 28, 2006
Pensacola Museum of Art
407 South Jefferson
Pensacola, Florida
February 26 - April 23, 2006
City of Portsmouth, Portsmouth Museums, Courthouse Gallery
420 High Street
Portsmouth, Virginia
May 14 - July 9, 2006
Longmont Museum
400 Quail Road
Longmont, Colorado
July 30 - September 24, 2006
Krasl Art Center
707 Lake Boulevard
St. Joseph, Missouri
October 7 - December 3, 2006
Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts
Montgomery, Alabama
January 1 - February 25, 2007
Bergstrom-Mahler Museum
165 North Park Avenue
Neenah, Wisconsin
March 18 - May 13, 2007
Lakeview Museum of Arts and Sciences
1125 West Lake Avenue
Peoria, Illinois
June 3 - July 29, 2007
Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art
Ursinus College
Collegeville, Pennsylvania


About the authors

Louis A. Zona is Director at the Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio and Gary T. Erbe, a self taught painter in the medium of oil, [2] is Guest Curator for the exhibition Trompe l'Oeil: The Art of Illusion.        


Editor's notes

The above article was reprinted in Resource Library on May 16, 2005 with the permission of the Stark University Center Galleries. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact the Stark University Center Galleries directly through either this phone number or web address:

1. courtesy of gbtate.com

2. quoted from Mr. Erbe's biography at his web site.

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