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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Trompe l'oeil

The newest thing in movies is 3-D, though actually it's been around for fifty years or more in one form or another. When I was a kid, it had to do with red and green cardboard glasses, starting with movies and creeping its way into comic books and trading cards. Today, it's all digitized, computerized, and the glasses ain't made of cardboard anymore.  They go for well over a hundred bucks.  Can 3-D TV be far off? All this, in the name of bringing still more realism to the art of storytelling--virtual reality.

Still-life Violin and Music
1888, William Harnett

Until the advent of photography at least, realism, or something closely related to it, seems to have been the ultimate measure of a painter's skill with a brush.  This striving for realism reach a pinnacle in the 1800's in the art of the still life. The French, as they did for so many things in art, had a word for it. They didn't call it virtual reality, they termed it Trompe l'oeil (fool the eye).  In the latter half of the century, the trend moved to America where it was even more vigorously embraced. The work of  William M. Harnett and John Frederick Peto seems almost a contest to see who could be most adept at fooling a willing public into believing, at least for a moment, that what they were seeing in their Victorian frames of the time was "real. 

Letter Rack, 1907, John Peto

Legend has it that a would-be philatelist once tried to peel from a Harnett painting a postage stamp painted by the artist on an envelop "attached" to the corner of  one of his  bulletin-board-like paintings. Speaking of stamps, the "contest" reached it's ultimate inanity near the turn of the century when Jefferson David Chalfant painted a postage stamp next to an identical "real" one and challenged the viewer to tell which was which. Of course today, the challenge is a no-brainer. The original postage stamp has faded to such a degree that there is no longer any doubt which is which. The painted version looks as fresh as the day it was printed...err...painted.

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