Exhibition Catalogue

The Brandywine River Museum presents this exhibition catalogue as part of its website. The first catalogue offered by the Museum in this format, it includes digital images of the works of art appearing in the exhibition, as well as commentaries by the curator and the artists. A six-page color brochure is also available though the museum shop.


The Brandywine River Museum's collection includes numerous examples of the realist tradition known as "trompe l'oeil." A French term meaning "to fool the eye," trompe l'oeil applies to art that cleverly fools viewers into thinking they are looking at actual objects rather than representations of them. Part of a long tradition of illusionism dating to antiquity, trompe l'oeil's popular appeal has endured through centuries. In American art, a period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was a particularly fertile time for this type of painting. The Museum has one of the strongest collections of such work, including fine examples by William M. Harnett, John F. Peto, John Haberle, Alexander Pope, George Cope and others. Given the popularity that contemporary trompe l'oeil painting enjoys in the early years of the new century, it is fitting that the Museum explore the genre as it has developed in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

This exhibition presents the work of 23 contemporary artists. Demonstrating a high degree of technical virtuosity, the artists entice viewers to become immersed in the act of looking, drawing them in with the optical tricks and deception traditional in trompe l'oeil work. Among these classic pictorial devices and optical illusions are the layering of objects (examples include letters, printed material, and money) against a flat surface such as a wall or hanging rack so that the objects seem to project into space, teasing the viewer into wanting to touch or read them. Other tricks include the depiction of niches, shelves or cupboards from which objects protrude into the viewer's space; figures that project dramatically from the picture plane; and objects -- such as fruit or dead animals hanging on a wall or a door.

While these contemporary artists and their techniques represent a link to earlier American masters of trompe l'oeil, each is striving to distinguish his or her work from the past and to offer today's audiences something compelling beyond the temporary pleasure and wonderment associated with deception. One of the recurring criticisms of trompe l'oeil art throughout history is that it too strongly emphasizes illusion rather than narrative content. Looking at the artists represented in this exhibition, however, we find works rich in meaning and subject matter, ranging from the personal to the universal. Themes and subjects include pop culture, nostalgia, surrealism, irony, nature, and homages to artists of the past. We offer these artists and their images as testimony to the vibrancy and originality possible in a tradition still very much alive.

Audrey Lewis, Associate Curator


This exhibition is supported by the museum's Davenport Family Foundation Fund for Exhibitions.

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