‘Trompe l’oeil produces surprise, giggles, chatter, appreciation’
Escapando de la Crítica, Pere Borrell del Caso, 1874
I rounded the corner of a gallery and spied the exhibition catalogue resting on a bench. Another reader had carelessly left it upside down and open, so that its cover was clearly visible and its spine within easy reach. I hadn’t yet laid my hands on a copy of the catalogue, and I was eager to see own my own entries in print. I made a beeline for the bench. I grasped the book.
It didn’t budge.
It was a fake. An expertly crafted simulacrum of the real catalogue, affixed to the bench and perfectly positioned to ensnare the gullible. I had been deceived.
In the space of an instant, I realized my mistake. Gasping with surprise, I beat a quick path out of the gallery, hoping that no one had witnessed my gaffe. I think I may have actually hidden behind my husband when I finally located him in another room. In a gushing whisper, I relayed the embarrassment of what had occurred. He took a long, steady look at me and burst into laughter. And then I began to laugh, too. Once we’d collected ourselves, we crept back into the gallery to inspect the trompe l’oeil catalogue, to marvel at its predatory conceit and its capacity to trump and surprise. For several long minutes, we enjoyed a good chuckle at ourselves. Well, at me.
I’ve thought often of this incident over the past few years as I researched the ways in which spectators reacted to trompe l’oeil objects during the post-revolutionary decades. Between the 1790s and 1820s, in cities large and small, early national Americans created, displayed, experienced, and wrote about a tantalizing array of pictorial and optical deceptions, including trompe l’oeil portraits and still life paintings, like those made by the Peales and their Philadelphia cohort; “philosophical” instruments, such as solar microscopes, zograscopes, and phantasmagorias, that magnified tiny things to magnificent proportions, threw flat pictures into three dimensions, or generated illusions of ghosts; even mechanical devices—such as the “Invisible Lady,” a popular visual and aural illusion—that vexed and delighted Americans up and down the East Coast for years. Spectators encountered these deceptions in an equally varied range of places, from Charles Willson Peale’s Philadelphia Museum to taverns, houses, and assembly halls temporarily transformed into public exhibition rooms.