Treacherous Images

A straight-forward image of a pipe, painted in a dispassionate, even anonymous manner—no visible brushwork to betray the individual behind this image. Against a blank background, the mundane object is carefully observed, its shape and details painstakingly rendered. Below the pipe, neatly formed letters declare in French: “This is not a pipe.” The script, reminiscent of advertisement or school books, adds an unsophisticated and even naïve dimension to words that clash with the image. To crack this paradox, we need the painting’s title: La Trahison des images (The Treachery of Images). Of course an image is not the object itself—what we have here is indeed not a pipe but the picture of a pipe. In a deadpan manner René Magritte warns us against taking images literally, in other words, not to believe in them. That the Belgian surrealist would come up with such a provocative statement is not a surprise; after all, he is the heir to Flemish artists who aimed to create an illusion of reality.

2 Plesch van Eyck copy

Jan van Eyck, Man in a Red Turban, oak on panel, 10.2 x 7.4 in. (26 x 19 cm), 1433, National Gallery, London (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Jan van Eyck’s portrait of a man in a red turban exemplifies how early Flemish artists embraced a “warts and all” approach to portraiture, capturing every personal detail in what appears to be a scrupulously true to life manner: all the details, such as wrinkles and stubble, are rendered in microscopic detail. Oil paints made this quest for a mimetic rendition of our visual reality possible. Although the medium had been recorded as early as the 12th century in Northern Europe, it was in the early 15th century, and in particular in the works of Flemish painters, that the technique was for the first time exploited to its full potential. It eventually became the major painting medium in Europe in the following century and by then, van Eyck had been incorrectly credited with its “invention” (the famous artist and author Giorgio Vasari contributed to spreading the myth). Incorrect facts can be revealing: such lies draw our attention to important truths. Van Eyck’s handling of the medium of oil paints is nothing short of miraculous; that he would be credited with its creation shows how impressed early witnesses were by his art. He and his fellow early Flemish artists embraced the medium because it allowed them specific effects. Pigments mixed in oils can be applied in thin layers called glazes, imparting a deep and luminous quality to the colors that could not be achieved with the opaque and fast-drying tempera. The paints can be diluted so as to allow for the most miniscule brushes to create what Erwin Panofsky famously referred to as van Eyck’s “microscopic-telescopic” realism.

Art historians are quite convinced that this is a self-portrait: the sitter looks out, as the painter would have done, in order to observe his features in a mirror. His intense gaze makes the viewer feel scrutinized. The original gilded frame carries on its bottom edge the artist’s signature, as if the painting were speaking: “Jan van Eyck made me on 21 October 1433.” On the top edge, where in other portraits van Eyck would place the sitter’s name, we find instead the artist’s motto: “Als ich kan,” which translates to “As I can.” Not only was it unusual for a commoner like van Eyck to adopt a motto but this particular one, which plays on the homophony between the Dutch for I, “ich” (pronounced pretty much like “Eyck”), can be understood as a statement of false humility (“as well as I can”), given the artist’s astounding skill. But there is more: these inscriptions, although painted, are rendered as to suggest that they have been carved into the wooden frame, with shadows and highlights consistent with the light source that illuminates the sitter’s face and that comes from the left side of the painting—they are what we call a “trompe l’oeil.”

3 Plesch unswept floor copy

Unswept Floor, mosaic, 4.05 x 0.41 m, beginning of the 2d c. CE, Museo Gregoriano Profano, Vatican (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Tricking the Eye

The very phrase “trompe l’oeil” confirms what Magritte tells us about the treachery of images as it translates from the French as “deceive the eye.” Ancient Romans practiced such an illusionistic type of art as is masterfully shown in the so-called Unswept Floor mosaic in the Vatican Museum. In this pavement that once graced the triclinium (dining room) of a fancy villa on Rome’s Aventine hill, we see the remnants of many meals—chicken and fish bones, nutshells, lobster legs, urchins, grape stems, olive pits, leaves—unceremoniously discarded and scattered on the floor. It turns out this was a popular subject matter, inspired by the Greeks, who first invented this genre, which they called asarotos oikos, “unswept room.” It might be trash, but that of luxury: we find expensive exotic imported foods.

What is at stake here is what the Greeks called mimesis, the word from which “imitation” is derived, referring to the ability to convey the observable world as if it were real. Pliny the Elder, the Roman author (believed to have died in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE that destroyed Pompeii and Herculaneum), tells the story of an artist, Zeuxis, who enters in a contest with his colleague Parrhasius. Zeuxis paints grapes so real that birds flock to peck at them. Having fooled nature, Zeuxis seems to have the upper hand. But when it comes to his turn to view Parrhasius’s painting, Zeuxis tries to remove the curtain that was hiding it—and realizes that it was not real, but painted! In the Vatican unswept floor mosaic, there is a mouse who has stepped into the scene, enticed by a walnut. Just like the birds who were tricked by Zeuxis’s fruit, the little rodent could be understood as a real one, fooled by the depicted nut.

4 Plesch van der Spelt van Mieris the Elder copy

Adriaen van der Spelt and Frans van Mieris the Elder, Trompe l’Oeil Still Life with Flower Garland and Curtain, oil on panel, 18 1/4 x 25 1/8 in. (46.5 x 63.9 cm), 1658, Art Institute of Chicago (photo: Véronique Plesch).

Perhaps for that reason, curtains appear in trompe l’oeil paintings, like in this still life in which two Dutch artists joined forces, each displaying his skill. Adriaen van der Spelt painted a garland of flowers and Frans van Mieris the Elder the curtain that obscures part of his colleague’s work (in van Mieris’s genre paintings, figures are often dressed in similarly shimmering and convincingly rendered silk fabrics). The curtain thus acts as a reminder of this contest in which the artist who had managed to fool nature is himself tricked into believing an illusion—a lie. Included in the excellent recent exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition (20 October 2022–22 January 2023), the wall copy for this work mentions how Parrhasius’s curtain became “a classic threshold device . . . that seemingly crosses over into the viewer’s space.” The butterfly (according to the wall text, a “Red Admiral”) that is “poised at the curtain’s edge” is perhaps another allusion to the ancient story.

Sadly, as frame historian Lynn Roberts aptly notes, the trompe l’oeil effect “is . . . spoilt by the modern frame having been made too close at the sight edge, so that the bottom of the curtain is hidden, rather than free to swing in illusion out from the painting and into the real world.” Roberts concludes that this “insensitive act of framing” lessens “the tension between perceived reality and decorated flat surface.”

Gabriel Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter, oil on wood panel, 52.5 x 40.2 cm (20.7 x 15.8 in.), c. 1665–67, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin ((photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Gabriel Metsu, Woman Reading a Letter, oil on wood panel, 52.5 x 40.2 cm (20.7 x 15.8 in.), c. 1665–67, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin ((photo: Wikimedia Commons).

In 17th-century Holland (and earlier as well: see The Frame Blog), curtains were actually used to protect paintings, as can be observed in this painting by Gabriel Metsu, where we see in the background a maid drawing such drapes while the lady of the house is absorbed reading a letter by a window (the cushion on her lap and the basket next to her show that she has interrupted her needlework). I am tempted to see in this painting further allusion to the mimetic powers of visual art, thanks to the parallel between the depicted window and the painting, which both have a curtain on a rod, but also the mirror (framed in the same way as the painting) which reflects reality, albeit in a slightly altered manner, as it inverts it.

When Alberti, the famous Renaissance architect, theorized the rules of one-point perspective that allow depictions to provide the illusion of reality, he compared the picture plane to “an open window through which I see what I want to paint.” A window exists at the juncture between inside and outside and our habit of framing windows signals this transition; just like in pictures, the frame offers a transition between our real world and the illusory world of the artwork. In Metsu’s painting, the two ladies are inside the house, with two windows bookending them: a real one on the left and a pictorial one on the right. The subject of the artwork, as is often the case in Dutch 17th-century art, helps us understand the scene. The maid draws just enough of the curtain for us to distinguish ships sailing in a rather rough sea. This glimpse functions as a reference to Dutch seafaring activities and leads us to understand that the lady reads a letter that was sent to her by a man, husband or lover, currently traveling the seas. This narrative is supplemented by the little dog between the two women, an age-old symbol of fidelity. That the letter is a love letter is further suggested by the arrows that adorn the bucket the maid holds, reminding the viewer of Cupid.

What the lady reads is known to her alone: at the time, silent reading had become widespread, a revolution of sorts after centuries of oral reading. Note that the maid holds a letter in her left hand (which very cleverly holds Metsu’s name), but that it is closed and probably, as was the custom, sealed. In fact, the lady holds the letter at an angle, turned away from the maid as if to prevent her from reading its contents.

Metsu thus comments upon what is observable, reflected, and represented—all products of looking (a mirror is referred to as a “looking glass”), while he also sets up an opposition between looking and reading—both forms of deciphering, or, we could say, of accessing truths and spotting lies. Metsu also makes us reflect on the status of such truths and lies: are they fully visible or are they kept hidden and/or private? As the maid draws the curtain, she reveals for us viewers enough of the painting to provide us an entry into the lady’s private reading (and since at the time love was compared to turbulent seas, the detail might also contain a warning). Curtains and the action of drawing them bring to mind the opposite actions of hiding and revealing. But what is hidden is what is revealed. Truths and lies alike can be hidden and be revealed.

6 Plesch Hogarth copy

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête, c. 1743, National Gallery, London (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Revealing Lies

We find another painting with a curtain in a work from the following century. William Hogarth’s six-painting series Marriage A-la-Mode recounts the arranged marriage between the son of the noble but broke Earl of Squander and the daughter of a rich alderman. In the second painting in the series, we see the aftermath of a night of revelry. A man walks away from the couple with a ledger under his arm that identifies him as the steward of the household. He also holds a wad of unpaid bills and his body language makes it clear that he’s giving up on trying to keep the newlyweds’ household solvent. Note that a dog reappears here, pulling a woman’s cap from the young man’s pocket. This age-old symbol of fidelity reveals shameful secrets, which are further reinforced by the syphilitic black spot on the man’s neck, fully visible to the viewer: the truth of adultery (and its nefarious health effects) eventually comes out.

7 Plesch detail Hogarth copy

William Hogarth, Marriage A-la-Mode: 2, The Tête à Tête, detail, c. 1743, National Gallery, London (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Echoing this sentiment is the painting barely visible in the background. Moving into the adjacent salon, we notice a servant yawning. Above him and to the right, we see a picture with a green curtain, which is just sufficiently drawn to display the naked foot of a reclining figure, suggesting an erotic image that needs to be hidden from view to maintain propriety—the illusion of a respectable household.

8 Plesch Augustus copy

Augustus of Primaporta, white marble, height 80.3 in. (204 cm), 1st century C.E., Vatican museums (photo: Wikimedia Commons).

Truth Decoys

The very phrase “trompe l’oeil” suggests conscious trickery. The tools at the service of such foolery are what we call illusionism for, as they imitate reality, they convey the illusion of observable “truths.” We can thus say that naturalism is but one of the decoys that artists deploy in order to deceive us, and that mimesis can be used to consciously convey lies of sorts. Take the depiction of emperor Augustus, who stands wearing military garb, his arm extended in an oratorical gesture as if he were addressing his troops. The sculpture’s naturalism is at the service of propagandistic lies. In all his portraits, no matter when they were made, the founder of the Roman Empire is represented as an eternally young man. Furthermore, Cupid stands next to him, riding a dolphin, in a reference to the naval battle of Actium, where he defeated Antony and Cleopatra. The presence of the god suggests that the emperor descends from Venus (Cupid’s mother) and in fact, Augustus stands barefoot, a detail that for the Romans denoted divine status.

9 Plesch Picasso copy

Picasso, The Absinthe Glass, painted bronze and perforated tin absinthe spoon, 8 7/8 x 5 x 2 1/2 in. (22.5 x 12.7 x 6.4 cm), 1914, Metropolitan Museum of art, New York (photo: Véronique Plesch).

10 Plesch detail Picasso copy

Picasso, The Absinthe Glass, detail, painted bronze and perforated tin absinthe spoon, 8 7/8 x 5 x 2 1/2 in. (22.5 x 12.7 x 6.4 cm), 1914, Metropolitan Museum of art, New York (photo: Véronique Plesch).
























In Augustus’s portrait, naturalism blends elements observable and fictional, just like Metsu seamlessly unites what can be directly observed (the world outside, seen from the window), mediated through a mirror, and what is represented, that is, an illusion of reality.

Pablo Picasso’s Glass of Absinthe tackles such issues as well. Picasso modeled in wax the distinctive elongated goblet used to drink the spirit known as “the green fairy,” which at the time was in the process of being banned because of its alleged (and, it turns out, overly exaggerated) psychoactive properties. He then cast six bronze copies, each painted in different ways, some of them, like this one, incorporating a real spoon, of the kind that was used to prepare the drink. The flat and slotted spoon is balanced at the top of the glass rim, holding a bronze depiction of the sugar lump that would be placed on top of it, so water could be poured through it, dissolving the sugar and blending it with the shot of absinthe in the glass. Many years later, Picasso explained his motivation: “I was interested in the relation between the real spoon and the modeled glass. In the way they clashed with each other.” One may wonder in what ways do they really clash? Is that clash simply between real object and depiction?

Should we go as far as declaring art a lie? Or is it because we know it is art that we can accept the truths it conveys? But perhaps it’s the other way round. Dante famously referred to his Divine Comedy as a “truth which has the face of falsehood” (“ver c’ha faccia di menzogna”) and the Dante scholar Teodolina Barolini further explained that the Comedy is “not a fiction that pretends to be true but a fiction that IS true.”



Alberti, Leon Battista. De Pictura, 1435. English: Leon Battista Alberti; On Painting, trans. John R. Spencer, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966. You can find excerpts of On Painting, here).

Barolini, Teodolina. The Undivine Comedy: Detheologizing Dante. Princeton: Princeton Univeristy Press, 1992 (quote: p. 13; my thanks to Olivia Holmes for this reference).

Dante Alighieri. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri, Volume 1: Inferno. Ed. and trans. Robert Durling and Ronald Martinez. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997 (quote: 16.124).

Panofsky, Erwin. Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953 (the phrase “microscopic-telescopic” appears on p. 182).

Pliny the Elder. The Natural History, trans. John Bostock, Henry T. Riley, London: Taylor and Francis, 1855. For the story of Zeuxis and Parrhasius, see book 35, chapter 36 “Artists who Painted with the Pencil.”

Roberts, Lynn. “An introduction to frames with covers, shutters and curtains. Part 3: Curtains and covers on secular paintings and looking-glasses.” The Frame Blog 19 January 2022 (with examples of frames outfitted with curtain rods).


Image at top: René Magritte, The Treachery of Images (La Trahison des images), oil on canvas, 23.75 x 31.94 in. (60.33 x 81.12 cm), 1929, Los Angeles County Museum of Art (photo: Keith Daly via Flickr).