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The art of trompe-l’oeil, which literally means “tricks the eye,” is almost as old as western visual arts themselves. It is concerned with achieving a high degree of realism in order to trick the eye into seeing what is not quite there and the mind into thinking it’s real.

The tricks can be for decorative purposes and for effect, as in architectural trompe-l’oeil, which is about suggesting space and depth where there is none. The dome in this church, for instance, is an illusion painted on a curved ceiling:

Andrea Pozzo, fresco with trompe-l’oeil dome (1703), Jesuit Church, Vienna — Photo byAlberto Fernandez

So is this dome, also by Pozzo, but this time on a flat ceiling:

Andrea Pozzo, fresco with trompe-l’oeil dome (1685-1694),  Sant’Ignazio Church, Rome — Photo by Bruce McAdam

Other tricks are for fun and the love of technical mastery. The best example is perhaps this Spanish boy, the subject of a painting trying to get away from the eyes of the critics:

Pere Borrell del Caso, Escaping Criticism (1874), Bank of Spain Collection, Madrid

Another is this double portrait by the same artist, in which an elbow resting on the frame and an outstretched hand tease us into playing along:

Pere Borrell del Caso, Two Laughing Girls (1880), Museum for Catalan Modernism, Barcelona

Trompe-l’oeil has recently made a comeback as street art, using concrete sidewalks or piers to create stunning illusions of depth, as in the work of German artist Edgar Müller:

Edgar Müller, The Crevasse (2008), Dun Laoghaire, Ireland — Source: Müller’s website,

The first lines of The Crevasse — Source: Müller’s website,

Trompe-l’oeil can be seen on doors, on walls and ceilings, on city buildings, on theater and opera stages, on wallpaper, in churches, in museums, in casinos, in restaurants and cafés, or on the sidewalk.

Regardless of the medium, its best examples continue to fascinate and delight, for there is a part of us, it seems, that just loves to be tricked.