Undeceive ourselves


Wendy Bellion reflects on the pleasures of trompe l'oeil and the links between citizenship and deception in early US history @ Common Place.

I have a confession to make.In the course of writing my book on art and illusion in the early republic, I was taken in by a trompe l’oeil object.It was October 2002. I had completed my doctoral dissertation the previous year and was just beginning the work of revising it for publication. In the meantime, I had contributed a number of entries to an exhibition catalogue for a large show about trompe l’oeil that was being organized by the National Gallery of Art, Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l’Oeil Painting. At the exhibition’s opening, I was thrilled to see many of the pictures I had studied, pondered, and written about. Cleverly positioned near a museum staircase was Charles Willson Peale’s trompe l’oeil Staircase Group (1795), a double portrait of Peale’s sons Raphaelle and Titian Ramsay that reportedly fooled no less a figure than George Washington back in the day. In another room I encountered the marine artist Thomas Birch, leaning out from the space of his portrait to rest his arm on the picture frame.

Elsewhere was Raphaelle Peale’s masterful Venus Rising from the Sea—A Deception (c. 1822), which appeared to conceal a picture of a female nude behind a cloth. According to family lore, Raphaelle’s wife—presumably peeved by her husband’s naughty imagination—took a swipe at the painting in an attempt to remove the cloth.

I knew all the tricks of trompe l’oeil walking into this exhibition. I knew the stories of spectators deceived by wily pictures, of birds that pecked at painted grapes and dogs that climbed the step of the Staircase Group. I knew better than to get taken in by an illusion. And then my vanity got the better of me.

Image: Raphaelle Peale @ Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art/

read more