By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
Most artists would be livid if six of the seven works that they had loaned to an exhibition returned damaged, but not Eric Conklin. He was flattered. Conklin, 58, practices a type of still life painting known as trompe l’oeil—French for “deceives the eye.” Conklin strives to do just that with his paintings, to persuade people that they are looking at genuine coins, chalkboards, photographs and other carefully chosen objects. The artist contributed the seven to Trompe l’Oeil: The Art of Illusion, which visited several museums across the United States between February 2005 and December 2007. The attendees walked in knowing they would see 65 paintings designed to fool their eyes, and most grew up within a pop culture of CGI special effects, TV shows whose characters address the audience, 3-D movies shown on IMAX screens and other diversions that blur the line between real and fake. Nonetheless, some viewers could not resist the urge to reach out and touch the art to confirm that it was indeed art. Conklin’s paintings came back with gouges and scrapes caused by fingernails, one of which left a fragment of red nail polish behind.
“It’s a compliment, but it’s also a detriment of the work we do,” Conklin says, adding that suffering the odd injury at the hands of a viewer is worth the effort of producing trompe l’oeil. (Insurance covered the repairs.) “Interacting with the painting is very, very important,” he says. “If they don’t interact with it, it’s just another painting.”
Painting a plausible trompe l’oeil requires an artist to forsake whole categories of subject matter. To avoid spoiling the effect, everything should be depicted at life size, and none of those things should ordinarily move or draw breath. Flat objects—crime scene tape, plasma televisions, road signs and chocolate bars—are ideal. “To have it really work and fool the eye, you have to have a shallow depth of field, like an envelope taped on a wall,” says Donald Clapper, president of the Trompe l’Oeil Society, a small invitation-only professional organization founded in 2001. “You can’t go too far back, or the eyes will know it’s not real.” Ken Davies, a Connecticut artist who began his career in the 1950s, when few American painters pursued the style, suggests that a composition including any object with measurements deeper than 3 inches risks crossing the line into realism. “An apple on a table is not a trompe l’oeil,” he says.
The term trompe l’oeil entered the English language in 1889, but illusionistic painting has, of course, been around for far longer. From the beginning, the style spawned a rich body of folklore, and on some level, it seems as if the artworks themselves are not enough—that they thrive in a symbiotic relationship with the mostly apocryphal stories that they inspire. The earliest contributions come from Roman author Pliny the Elder, whose tales of the Greek painter Zeuxis enthralled generations of artists. In the first, Zeuxis—who was active at the turn of the third century B.C.—painted a child holding grapes. According to Pliny, the false fruit tantalized birds, who flew in to peck at the painting, but Zeuxis was still dissatisfied. He felt he had failed, because the image of the child should have scared the birds away. The second story features Zeuxis facing off against a fellow artist, Parrhasios, and losing. Zeuxis painted grapes, which again frustrated the birds. Triumphant, he asked Parrhasios to lift the curtain to reveal his artwork, only to realize that the curtain was part of the painting. Zeuxis conceded, stating that he had tricked the beasts but Parrhasios had snookered a fellow artist.
Later stories repeated the themes of mastery and deception. Giotto was said to have painted a fly that fooled his teacher, Cimabue, into trying to shoo it away. An impoverished young Raphael allegedly paid a hotel bill with a trompe l’oeil of the sum demanded. Samuel Pepys admitted in a 1663 diary entry to falling for a Samuel van Hoogstraten canvas of a long corridor on display in a London home.
By the 19th century the fascination had faded, at least for the art establishment. In an 1888 essay in The Magazine of Art, the painter John Everett Millais wrote, “We are told of the grapes of Zeuxis, which the birds came to peck at, and of Parrhasius’ curtain that deceived Zeuxis, and so on. But what of that? That is mere imitation, and I could place my hand on half a dozen men who could do as much … it is hardly necessary to say that nowadays art demands much more than that.”
But in the U.S. trompe l’oeil was experiencing a golden age. It first appeared in American art soon after the country itself emerged, and the usual tall tales sprouted along with it. The genre reached its zenith of popularity in the latter half of the 19th century, when the richest crop of works was produced. John Haberle’s 1890 painting Grandma’s Hearthstone, a huge, 96- by 66-inch commission, purportedly resembled a fireplace so well that a cat curled up and napped before the spurious flames. New York tavern owner Theodore Stewart purchased an 1885 rendition of William Harnett’s After the Hunt to entertain his customers, who would bicker tirelessly over whether the arrangement of dead animals and hunting gear was bogus. A newspaper report on the phenomenon claimed that “gentlemen from the country and especially from Chicago, who see it for the first time, declare that nobody can take them in, and that the objects are real objects hung up with an intent to deceive people.” In other words, cultured urbanites see the painting clearly, but rubes cannot.
The same theme crops up in a trompe l’oeil tale told at the expense of our first president. Charles Willson Peale’s 1795 painting Staircase Group depicts his sons Raphaelle and Titian climbing stairs, and Peale amplified the deception by placing the canvas in a doorframe and installing a wooden step at its base. When George Washington visited the Peale museum and walked past the painting, he reportedly bowed to the boys. “Washington was fooled by it, but not Jefferson, who had been to France,” says Mount Holyoke College fine arts professor Paul Staiti, speculating on why Washington would have starred in the story. “Washington was very smart, to be sure, but he had never been to college. You’d never fool Jefferson on this, I assume.”
Peale and his descendants played with trompe l’oeil on occasion, but the genre flowered following the Civil War. Given that the conflict and its aftermath required Americans to accept many absurd notions as fact—that the country could split in two and go to war against itself, that the president could be shot on Good Friday by one of the most famous actors of the age and die, martyred, on Easter Sunday eve—it is not surprising that the act of questioning reality entered the realm of mass entertainment. Lecturers were popular in the late 19th century, and the king of the circuit was Robert Ingersoll, a religion–skewering lawyer who was billed as “The Great Agnostic.” Mark Twain, no slouch at skepticism, drew healthy crowds to his orations. P.T. Barnum’s circus trains trundled bizarre wonders across the country, and performers such as Alexander Herrmann, Harry Kellar and Harry Houdini ushered in a golden age of stage magic. It was against this cultural backdrop that trompe l’oeil found favor.
Its leading American practitioner was Harnett, an Irish-born, patchily educated former engraver who toward the end of his life demanded—and received—thousands of dollars for his canvases. Unfortunately for him, he had little time to savor his success; he died of a kidney ailment in 1892 at the age of 44, having produced roughly 250 works. He is the sole major artist of the late-19th-century group who traveled overseas, in Munich, Paris and London, which imparts an Old World sensibility to his style and choice of subjects.
He stuck with trompe l’oeil despite the scorn that the gatekeepers of the respectable art world heaped on it and on him. Undeniably, the genre has a humble aspect despite its bravura technique; in a rare newspaper interview, Harnett claimed he initially painted inanimate objects because he could not afford to hire models. And the crowd-pleasing nature of his works could not have helped matters; viewers were almost as likely to encounter a Harnett in a dry goods emporium as in a gallery.
One notice described a painting that Harnett submitted to an 1878 Philadelphia Society of Artists show as “a clever but overlabored study of inanimate objects”—and that was one of the kinder reviews he received in his career. The American landscape painter George Inness was flat-out rude: “Imitation is worthless. Photography does it much better than you or I could. In a barroom in New York is a painting of a barn door with hinges on it and a keyhole. It is painted so well that you could put your finger in the keyhole; but it is not real! It is not what it represents. It is a lie.”
Be that as it may, Inness was certainly wrong about photography. “No one is going to mistake a photo for the real thing,” says Staiti, adding, “I think trompe l’oeil painting is better than real life.” When painting his four versions of After the Hunt, Harnett relied in part on black-and-white hunting tableaux shot by the German photographer Adolphe Braun. “Harnett tops photography in that regard,” says Staiti. “It’s a wonderful irony, working by hand for hundreds of hours to beat the machine. It’s like John Henry racing against the steam–powered drill and winning.” Moreover, Harnett actually was a good artist. “His paintings are exquisite,” says Gary Erbe, a Hoboken, N.J., artist and member of the Trompe l’Oeil Society. “He’s got an elegance and a sophistication to his work that (his peers) don’t have. They’re good, but they’re not like Harnett.”
Harnett stands alone for another reason. While contemporary trompe l’oeil artists respect Harnett’s colleagues Haberle and John Frederick Peto, Harnett changed their lives. “I saw a Harnett and it blew me away,” Clapper says. He was 29 when he found the agent of his transformation in the permanent collection of the High Museum in Atlanta, an 1883 work now called Still Life with Bust of Dante. “The clarity, the realism, the objects, the colors … I couldn’t believe someone did that with oil paint,” Clapper says. “I said to myself that someday I’d like to try to paint like that.”
Davies decided what course he would pursue as an artist after seeing a Harnett as a 17-year-old in 1942. Conklin had the same experience in 1996, when he was 45. Both were smitten by the same painting: Old Models, the painter’s final work, a vertical assemblage of musical instruments against a green background, owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Davies was killing time before interviewing for a place at the Massachusetts School of Art. “When I saw that, it absolutely knocked me out,” says Davies, now 83. “It made me decide that I’ve gotta do that, or try to do that.” Conklin speaks in similar awestruck terms. “I was 2 feet away, and it looked so real, I thought I could reach in and grab the violin,” he says. “At that point, I decided that was what I was going to do. I plunged in and went back to school to study the Old Masters.”
Harnett seems to have had a comparable effect on Peto and Haberle, his best-known contemporaries. Curiously, the latter seems to have been inspired as much by an arrest as by an artwork. In November 1886 Secret Service agents seized Harnett on suspicion of counterfeiting and quickly released him, suggesting that he avoid returning to the themes he explored in his Five Dollar Note (1887). Harnett heeded their advice, but Haberle soon embarked on Imitation, a currency painting that would make his trompe l’oeil reputation and become the first of at least six different images that explore the verboten subject. The snarkiness that animates Haberle’s work is fully evident in Can You Break a Five?, a circa 1888 composition in which he legibly rendered the counterfeiting warning on a dollar bill. Gertrude Grace Sill, an art historian who is writing a biography of Haberle and serving as guest curator of a one-man Haberle show that will open in December at the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut, speculates that he viewed painting money as a way to make money. “He hit on something that was very popular,” she says, “and he got paid for it.”
Haberle’s attention to detail distinguishes him as the superior technician of the 19th- century group, so much so that his rigor might have shortened his trompe l’oeil career. Connecticut news-paper articles from the early 1890s mention Haberle’s intent to switch to more forgiving subjects because of worsening eyesight. He died in 1933 at age 77, having finished his last trompe l’oeil in 1895.
Peto and Harnett were friends, having both attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in the late 1870s. Peto did not limit himself to trompe l’oeil, and his looser brushwork was uncharacteristic of the genre. His chroniclers, starting with art historian Alfred Frankenstein in the 1940s, have insisted that he was no mere imitator of Harnett, but an analysis of their works by date does reveal a pattern of Peto exploring ground broken by his friend. The only stark exception is their so-called rack paintings, which portray letters, calling cards, photographs and ephemera secured to a board by ribbons or tapes. It isn’t clear whether the two artists agreed to race each other, but both painted their first racks in 1879, with Peto finishing Office Board for the Smith Bros. Coal Co. in June and Harnett completing The Artist’s Letter Rack in August. Peto went on to make the rack motif his own, imbuing the accumulations of flat objects with mystery and psychological heft. One of his deftest touches was including an envelope marked “Important Information Inside” in several rack paintings, taunting the viewer with news that can never be revealed.
Harnett unwittingly received credit for these paintings for a time. His art was in sufficient demand in the decade following his death to prompt unscrupulous dealers to wipe Peto’s signature off a canvas and present it as a Harnett. Frankenstein sorted out the mess and compiled the first comprehensive overview of late 19th-century American trompe l’oeil in After the Hunt: William Harnett and Other American Still Life Painters, 1870–1900, which was first published in 1953 and recommended reassigning 21 Harnetts to Peto. Shady dealers successfully offered Petos as Harnetts largely because Peto was unsuccessful and unknown. When he moved to Island Heights, N.J., in 1889, he isolated himself from the art world, and died of Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment, in 1907 at age 53.
Peto’s critical reception only began to change after Harnett returned to prominence in the 1930s. Dealer Edith Gregor Halpert, founder of the Downtown Gallery in New York, which focused on American folk art, rediscovered him and mounted an exhibition, Nature-Vivre, in the spring of 1939. In the catalogue for the show, Halpert drew attention to the way Harnett “anticipated a style practiced today by the vanguard in France and in this country” and presented him as “a link between Dutch art of the 17th century and Surrealism of the 20th.” The success of the exhibition raised interest in Harnett, and later in Peto and Haberle, whose protocollage compositions were viewed as harbingers of Pop art.
The trio’s paintings have found homes in some of America’s greatest art institutions, quite an accomplishment for a body of work that was once the Rodney Dangerfield of American art. Classic trompe l’oeil also has a following among collectors of American paintings, such as Masco chairman Richard Manoogian, who has The Changes of Time, one of Haberle’s finest works, and a Peto letter rack that was once attributed to Harnett. (He also owns paintings by Davies and Erbe.) Top 19th–century works can command quite high prices. The last Harnett trompe l’oeil to appear at auction, an 1885 painting of a single game bird hung against a door, fetched more than $600,000 at Christie’s New York in 1998. A Haberle canvas from the late 1880s, Confederate Note, sold at Sotheby’s New York in 2006 for $352,000. And in 2006, the last time a Peto letter-rack painting came on the block—Old Time Letter Rack (1894)—it garnered $805,000, well above its $150,000–250,000 estimate, at John Moran Auctioneers of Altadena, Calif.
Neither Harnett’s eventual vindication nor the prices realized for works by him and some of his colleagues guarantee that today’s trompe l’oeil artists will gain similar fame. Contemporary trompe l’oeil is more likely to meet with critical indifference than with the over-the-top attacks that greeted its ancestors. Davies recalls receiving a rare bit of attention in the 1950s, when he was included in the precursor of the Whitney biennial. His contribution was The Blotter, a 1951 oil on canvas featuring torn envelopes, sunglasses, a playing card, a photograph and a button. “At that point, trompe l’oeil was such a rarity, I was invited to the show,” he says, adding that he would not be invited to a similar show today.
Erbe believes the key to immortality lies in pushing the boundaries of the form. He is adamant, almost militant, about using the style for more than performing magic tricks with pigment. “Most trompe l’oeil painters today are not interested in expressing ideas,” he says. “My intention is to create modern trompe l’oeil paintings, and I think I’ve achieved that.” His one-man show, Gary T. Erbe: 40 Years Retrospective, now at the Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio, is free of letter racks, hunting trophies and cartes-de-visite. Instead, he favors artifacts of the present day and the recent past: think bicentennial flags, comic books and hospital scrubs. His violins owe more to Picasso than to Harnett, and when paper money appears, it is as a folded hundred beneath the pinkie of a skeletonized severed hand in the 1978 canvas You Can’t Take it With You. “I did a few money paintings in the ’70s because I had something to say,” says Erbe. “Then I moved on and didn’t do any more, because I’d said what I had to say.”
Still, most trompe l’oeil artists will admit that the thrill of forcing someone to stop in their tracks, look, look again and reach out never gets old. “It’s irritating when I get paintings back that are damaged because of fingernail scrapes,” says Conklin, “but I did fool somebody.”
Arcadia Fine Arts, New York
Donald Clapper, Sage Creek Gallery, Santa Fe, N.M.
Eric Conklin, Eleanor Ettinger Gallery, New York
Ken Davies, Cavalier Galleries, Greenwich, Conn.
Gary Erbe, Godel & Co. Fine Art, New York
Heritage Auction Galleries, Dallas
Newman Galleries, Philadelphia
Principle Gallery, Alexandria, Va.
Thomas Colville Fine Art