Trompe l’oeil


The Dead Thrush. Jean-Antoine Houdon in the Portico Gallery of the The Frick

I spent Sunday afternoon at The Frick Collection in NYC with my daughter and two friends. I hadn’t been for many years. I really wanted to see Giovanni Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert. When you get to know a painting from an image in a book or on the computer the truth is- you have no idea what you are looking at. So many perceptual cues are removed:  the true color, hue and scale are mere whims of a lens, paper or screen through which you see a tiny representation of the actual object.


Truth and certainty are concepts that I cannot grasp yet continually grapple with. A trompe l’oeil is an overt attempt to control the “truth” of the viewer’s eye and brain. Houdon’s marble relief sculpture of a dead thrush was made (according to the Frick’s info) for the purpose of proving sculpture to be a superior demonstration of art’s ability to fool your eye. It is a stunning work. Your brain knows it is hard, cold marble, but that belly, that belly… is soft, the thin wings still warm with the vestiges of life, you’d swear the feathers had just billowed in a quiet breeze. The sculptured thrush is life size and the urge to gently hold this little bird in your hand is intense.  The artist has done all he could to complete the deception.

But there are many levels of deception. Standing in front of St. Francis in the Desert was mesmerizing for its beauty, but also because of the adjustment I had to make when confronted with the truth of the real painting. The colors were nothing that could be reproduced on thin, dry paper. The sheen and smoothness of the paint, the clarity and calm of the large painting were all but unknown to me. And yet, and yet, I had loved the piece before I ever really saw it.

I have always been hesitant to enjoy the feeling of “knowing,” always certain of only one thing- my uncertainty. And while it may be a measure of my own insecurities,  my life has discouraged the comfort of surety. Forays into the foreign terrain of certainty have been disastrous for me. But at the same time the suspicion that I stubbornly hold, that I am correct to doubt, is verified in matters large and small.

What comfort there is to be had stems from an understanding that what we think we know is but a hollow perception of time, influence, and circumstance. The rigidity of certainty will only break your heart. Better to appreciate each day, each work of art,  beautiful poem or person, for the changing, evolving things they truly are, in whatever form that it is available to you- now.

11 responses to “Trompe l’oeil

  1. How aptly put. Can we start a Society for the Appreciation of Uncertainty? As I have long suspected that as attractive as certainty is, it is the source of much that is wrong in the world…..Thank you so much for this concise appreciation of something I also hold dear.

  2. “When you get to know a painting from an image in a book or on the computer the truth is- you have no idea what you are looking at.” you said it!

    So people, please, get out there and go see art up close. Seek out the artists, and talk to them. We’re not all lunatics.

  3. It is really incredible to see a real painting, hopefully when the gallery is not too crowded. A few years back I was in London on the day of ariot that never happened. What a joy to visit the National Gallery when almost empty.

  4. petrujviljoen

    ”…uncertainty. And while it may be a measure of my own insecurities, my life has discouraged the comfort of surety.” A South African artist, William Kentridge, brought this home in a walkabout of his works that I attended. He said doubt, or uncertainty, is probably the most important part of creating or viewing an artwork. It’s the doubt that continues the exploring.

  5. It’s interesting to see the difference from looking at art work in books or in person! It’s like looking at two different things!

  6. Nothing compares to observe a painting in real life.
    And about uncertanty… well, i think is what’s most exciting about life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s