Hoodwinking the customer -- even the museum director -- is the main point of the exhibition, "Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil Painting," which is on view at its sole venue, the National Gallery, until March 2. Trompe l'oeil is a French expression that means "deceive the eye," and it is used to describe a genre of painting in which the artist tries to fool the spectator into thinking that the depicted object not only looks real but is real. For this show, the National Gallery has added several sculptures like those of [Duane Hanson] that try to do the same thing.
Organized by guest curator Sybille Ebert-Schifferer, the exhibition makes clear that the sharpest practitioners of such deception were a group of 19th century American painters led by William M. Harnett. Ebert-Schifferer, who is director of the Bibliotheca Hertziana at the Max Planck Institute for Art History in Rome, had been astounded by these artists when she attended an exhibition of American art 20 years ago. That eventually led to her scholarly interest in trompe l'oeil and the invitation by the National Gallery to mount this show in Washington.
Although trompe l'oeil didn't get its French name until 1800, illusion and deception have long been a tradition in painting. Roman historian Pliny the Elder wrote that classical Greek artist Zeuxis painted a bunch of grapes so well in the 5th century BC that birds swooped down on the canvas and tried to eat the fruit. Another painter, Parrhasios, then showed Zeuxis his own canvas, seemingly covered by a lace curtain. When Zeuxis tried to pull off the curtain to see the painting, he discovered to his embarrassment that the curtain itself was the painting.