What is trompe l’oeil and how the heck do you pronounce it?

Pomp Boy. Stomp Toy: Both rhyme with the French term trompe l’oeil. Pronounce it “tromp loy” and even resistant francophones will understand you. But what is trompe l’oeil? And how did it become such an important element in decorative painting?

Michael Alford's modern take on a traditional trompe l'oeil motif. A faux window opens onto an imagined landscape. The architectural elements—and the black figure vase—hark back to classical times.

Michael Alford’s modern take on a traditional trompe l’oeil motif. A faux window opens onto an imagined landscape. The architectural elements—and the black figure vase—hark back to trompe l’oeil’s classical origins.

Trompe l’oeil is type of painting that creates illusions of three-dimensional objects and spaces on flat surfaces. It’s mood is typically playful—literally, the French term translates as “fool the eye”. Trompe l’oeil work is characterized by visual jokes, clever juxtapositions and constant references to the tension between what is real and what is illusory. It’s always drawing attention to its own foolery, and that’s part of its charm.

A Roman still life: you can practically reach out and pick one of those grapes

A Roman still life: Go ahead, take a grape.

The tradition goes back to the beginnings of western art. We know from Pliny that the Greeks valued illusionistic painting but most of the earliest surviving examples are from Roman times. The Romans were very partial to a bit of optical trickery in their domestic decoration. Elaborate garden scenes were frescoed on the walls of dining rooms and small still life paintings, such as this one from Pompeii, were prized for their realism.

Early artists strove for illusion as best they could, but it was only during the Renaissance, when the techniques of perspective were perfected, that they had a consistent method for creating illusions of three-dimensional space.

The technique of three-point perspective was developed during the Renaissance, giving artists a reliable way to create illusions of space.

The technique of three-point perspective was developed during the Renaissance, giving artists a reliable way to create illusions of space.

With the tools of perspective firmly in hand, artists had a field day with trompe l’oeil effects throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Using nothing more than paint and brushes, they blasted open the walls and ceilings of churches and palaces across Europe. They vied with one another for the most spectacular use of illusion and wealthy patrons were prepared to pay fortunes for the wow factor that good trompe l’oeil brought to their interiors. Craftily painted architectural features such as faux columns, vaults and architraves, were commonly used as a basis for the grandest illusions.

Andrea Pozzo struts his illusionistic stuff on the vault of the church of Sant'Ignazio in Rome.  Painted architecture provides the frame and the foundation for this tour de force of trompe. Serously: sheesh.

Andrea Pozzo struts his illusionistic stuff on the vault of the church of Sant’Ignazio in Rome. Trompe l’oeil architecture provides the frame and foundation for this feverish vision of heaven, a common use of the technique.

Today most clients find such displays of painting pyrotechnics a bit—er—over the top. Yet trompe l’oeil remains a popular and versatile form of decorative painting. Michael Alford routinely uses trompe l’oeil techniques to create features for public spaces, such as restaurants and casinos, as well as private homes. Now, as ever, the success of a piece of trompe l’oeil depends on the technical skill of the artist (there are few things less convincing than trompe l’oeil painted by an artist without an adequate mastery of perspective) but the emphasis is on the bespoke, the special, the one-of-a-kind. Michael’s trompe l’oeil features often include witty personal touches, such as references to family members or objects with special significance to the client. Trompe l’oeil lends itself to humor and fun and can be the perfect way to inject a light touch into a serious interior.

Playful: painted stonework and a faux curtain frame distant views. The monkey and parrot were both pets of the client.

Playful: painted stonework and a faux curtain frame distant views. The monkey and parrot were both pets of the client. Painting by Michael Alford.

A shelf of fantasy books. Each title in this witty false library has a special significance for the client.

A shelf of fantasy books. Each title in this witty false library has a special significance for the client. Painting by Michael Alford

A dining room in the Albany. Painted fabric frames a real mirror, flanked by illusory niches. Painting by Michael Alford.

A dining room in the Albany. Painted fabric frames a real mirror, framed by illusory niches. Painting by Michael Alford.

A trompe l'oeil statue in a trompe l'oeil niche flanked by a trompe l'oeil column. The palm is real. Can you tell?

A trompe l’oeil statue in a trompe l’oeil niche flanked by a trompe l’oeil column. Only the palm is real. Painting by Michael Alford.