In 1936 Alfred Barr, director of the Museum of Modern Art, drew a flowchart of recent art developments to accompany “Cubism and Abstract Art,” one of the museum’s defining exhibitions. Printed on the catalog cover and styled with the look of empirical rigor, the diagram outlines a complex and seemingly inexorable momentum from figuration, at the top of the page, to abstraction, at the bottom. The critical nexus is Cubism. Arrows rain down onto it from Cézanne, Seurat, Rousseau, and “Negro Sculpture” and flow out from it to Dadaism, de Stijl, Suprematism, and ultimately the Bauhaus and Modern Architecture. The logic was straightforward, Barr explained: “Since resemblance to nature is at best superfluous and at worst distracting, it might as well be eliminated.” His crib sheet has come in for its fair share of tweaking and critiquing down the decades, but that sense of the Cubist function—input figuration, output abstraction—still holds sway. You may love it, hate it, or just be bored by it, but Cubism is important.

It is also familiar. All those prismatic, dun-colored canvases with their displaced eyes and wayward bottles produced a century of admiring exhibitions, serious books, and jokes about modern art. The frisky months when Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque egged each other on to reinvent the space of painting are the stuff of art-world legend. Other artists, like Juan Gris, came slightly later to the party but have also been inducted into the modernism hall of fame. High points of Cubism are on constant view in museums, and many are in New York. So the announcement of a big new Cubism show at the Met—just eight years after its big Cubism exhibition to welcome the Leonard A. Lauder collection—might feel a bit ho-hum.

“Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition,” however, does that rare thing: it makes you see differently. The curators Emily Braun (co-organizer of the 2014 exhibition) and Elizabeth Cowling focus on a specific subset of Cubism—still lifes by Picasso, Braque, and Gris, almost all made between 1912 and 1914—around which they build an argument with objects made across four centuries: paintings, furniture, dishware, and a cavalcade of works on paper.1 Space is given to dozens of masterpieces and to revelatory bits of social and material history. The show’s thesis—that modern art’s celebrated gateway to abstraction took inspiration from the acme of painted illusion—may sound far-fetched but quickly comes to seem self-evident. All you have to do is look.

The exhibition opens with an eye-catching seventeenth-century oddity: a collaboration between the Dutch painters Adriaen van der Spelt and Frans van Mieris the Elder. In this painting, Van der Spelt’s burst of vivid botany—tulip, peony, English ivy—is only partly visible, hidden on one side by Van Mieris’s blue curtain. The image looks strange in part because we are no longer in the habit of protecting paintings with curtains, and also because while Van der Spelt’s contribution looks just like what it is—a fine painting of flowers—the curtain looks astonishingly, disconcertingly, like a curtain.

This confection introduces one of the foundational myths of representational painting and a leitmotif for the exhibition—the fifth-century BC rivalry between two Greek artists: Zeuxis, who painted grapes so convincing that birds flew down to peck at them, and Parrhasius, who painted a curtain so convincing Zeuxis himself asked that it be lifted. Van der Spelt was a flower painter, so we get blooms rather than grapes, but the point is the same, as is the lesson in optics: a painted curtain is more deceptive than painted flowers or grapes because it appears to sit in front of the flat surface of the painting; it makes no pretense of opening onto a landscape or a different room. The gambit succeeds because of context (we know the picture hangs on a solid wall) and also because of parallax: as your eyes move in space, nearby objects appear to change position relative to distant ones. In a painting, however, the relationships are fixed, which is why the linear perspective that European art adopted in the Renaissance really only works while you stand still. And because parallax shift is proportional to the distance between the objects in view, a flattish curtain raises fewer problems than, say, trees in a field.

In medieval Europe, the confusion occasioned by a shallow thing, carefully depicted at the correct size and casting a credible shadow, was exploited by manuscript illuminators (flies were popular), and in the early Renaissance Giovanni Bellini and others painted imitations of small paper notes (cartellini) on the surfaces of conventional portraits and religious pictures. Eventually, such addenda blossomed into the distinctive mode of still-life painting that was later called trompe l’oeil.

Mesmerizing examples at the Met portray furled and folded papers, quills and combs, ostensibly tacked to cupboard doors or stuck behind the straps of letter racks (precursors of the bulletin board). One small gem, lent by the National Gallery and painted by an unknown artist, looks like a rough wooden board on which a dog-eared etching by Ferdinand Bol has been affixed with sealing wax, but everything from the knot in the wood to the ding in the paper is a fib (see illustration below). An ambitious painting by Samuel van Hoogstraten includes a medallion and gold chain he was awarded by the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III, but he tucks it behind a pair of scissors and a razor, the pictorial equivalent of a humble brag. The calculated effect is of rooms caught in dishabille—papers crumpled, correspondence unanswered, ribbons undone. The descriptive term “quodlibet” (whatever) for such assortments captured the sense of stagy nonchalance.


Trompe l’Oeil of an Etching by Ferdinand Bol; artist unknown

National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Trompe l’Oeil of an Etching by Ferdinand Bol, circa 1675; artist unknown

This attitude was, of course, also a feint. Not only are these pictures self-evidently the result of enormous skill and effort, but their assembled doodads carry clues meant to be unraveled. The letters display names and dates; printed matter alludes to current events; musical notation is replete with emotional or social significance. The show’s exemplary catalog offers close readings of the political, personal, and self-promotional contents of these densely constructed works.

The images ask to be read, but also to be seen, and they are structured to raise questions about the nature and veracity of vision. Early on we encounter The Attributes of the Painter (1665) by Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts, a large canvas pretending to be a wooden wall onto which a smaller canvas has been imperfectly tacked (an upper corner flops forward). A painter’s palette and brushes tied in a bundle hang below. The canvas-within-a-canvas depicts the attributes of music—violin, bow, sheet music—yet the small sketch beside it summarizes not the musical picture but the whole composition we are looking at. Such trippy, recursive games were a staple of trompe l’oeil.

What does all this have to do with Cubism? The first answer comes in the form of Braque’s Violin and Palette (1909), a famous exemplar of early Cubism. A concatenation of Euclidean not-so-solids, free-floating strings, and f-holes nestled in twitchy shadow, Braque’s violin looks nothing like Gijsbrechts’s. Yet it too is accompanied by sheet music and, at the top, an artist’s palette dangling on a nail. This nail and its shadow, angled and accurately foreshortened, appeared in several Braque compositions and perplexed modernist art critics who understood Cubism as pushing soberly toward abstraction. Barr wrote about it in 1936 (the word “heresies” was used), Clement Greenberg in 1959. It is regularly described as a “trompe l’oeil nail,” though it is clearly just paint on canvas and causes nothing like the optical uncertainty of the Van Mieris curtain. It is not so much an instrument of deception as a symbol—“a metonym for trompe l’oeil mimesis,” in Braun’s phrase—there to assert the flatness of the canvas, and also to disrupt expectation and wrong-foot the viewer who might have thought she’d got the hang of the new, abstract-leaning language. It is, in effect, Gijsbrechts’s joke in a modern voice.

Two years later Braque began applying areas of hand-painted woodgrain to his pictures, again in a way that would never be confused with the real thing but constituted another small heresy, a willful spot of easy-to-recognize representation within nonrepresentational Cubist space. Taking the tease a step further, in 1912 both Braque and Picasso started to elaborate their compositions with swatches of printed materials imitating other materials. Picasso’s Still Life with Chair Caning is an oval canvas (suggestive of a tabletop) whose caning (suggestive of a chair seat) is a section of printed oil cloth. This work has often been touted as the very first collage—a claim quietly refuted at the Met by the presence of Jefferson D. Chalfant’s envelope-sized picture from circa 1890, in which a real four-cent stamp is adhered alongside its painted imitation, both of them positioned above a faux newspaper clipping that reads, “Mr. Chalfant pasted a real stamp beside his painting and asks, ‘Which is which?’”

Similarly, Braque’s addition of woodgrain wallpaper to his charcoal drawing Fruit Dish and Glass (1912) has been credited as the first papier collé, though people had been making pictures from cut-and-pasted paper for as long as there had been paper to cut and paste.2 (Leaving aside rarities like the magical botanical collages of the eighteenth-century artist Mary Delany, there was an entire Victorian industry of preprinted images and letters intended for hobbyists to reconfigure with scissors and pastepot.)


If the Cubists did not actually invent collage, they were the first to exploit its disruptive power in the realm of “serious” art. The initial Cubist effort to break open the shapes of the visible world—later dubbed its “analytic” phase—had taken form in fairly conservative media: painting, drawing, etching. The adoption of collage marked the transition to “synthetic” Cubism, which played with the manifold ways that world might be glued back together, and it did so through more colorful and fanciful means.

From the perspective of modernism, Braque’s bit of wallpaper was a nifty spoiler to both coherent illusion and abstraction. It might be interpreted as representing a tabletop or experienced as an eccentric polygon pasted to a flat surface, but there’s no getting around its status as a real piece of printed fakery. A 1913 painting by Gris, hung in the same room as the Chalfant stamp and the Picasso oval canvas, borrows Braque’s nail but uses it to hang a frame (painted) surrounding an engraving (real).

Visual echoes like that between the Gijsbrechts and the Braque constitute the exhibition’s “crucial evidence” of connection between the two styles. In the rooms that follow there are seventeenth-century glasses, pipes, and playing cards, and twentieth-century glasses, pipes, and playing cards. There is a Wilhelm Robart drawing of papers scattered on faux speckled granite from 1770–1780, and a Picasso collage of his own drawing glued to faux speckled granite, done in 1914. The tumbling still life of fruit, flowers, and fancy housewares by J.S. Bernard (1657) may not be full-on trompe l’oeil (it does use receding space), but the ricochet with Picasso’s tumbling Still Life with Compote and Glass (1914–1915) is so satisfying it would be pedantic to quibble.

One section brings together compositions by the three Cubists, Gijsbrechts, and the nineteenth-century American painter William Harnett, all portraying hanging instruments (seven violins, one guitar) accompanied by sheet music and woodgrain. The conceit is peculiar: a glass on a table could happen anywhere, but a violin on a peg with accessories is rare. (Searching Google Images for “still life painting,” “violin hanging” returns a wealth of trompe l’oeil, Cubism, and parodies or pastiches of trompe l’oeil and Cubism, but little else.) The correlation is odd enough, Cowling observes, that “one suspects an intentional allusion.”

This raises a fundamental question: When we link Cubism to trompe l’oeil, are we talking about causality or coincidence? Were the Cubists knowingly invoking trompe l’oeil precedents, or were they just horsing around in ways that happened to use similar tropes? And if it was a knowing nod, was it made in admiration, mockery, or something else? Because while Van Hoogstraten had been honored by the Holy Roman Emperor, and Gijsbrechts had once painted for the Danish court, by the turn of the twentieth century the bloom was very much off trompe l’oeil’s rose.

Cowling’s catalog essay gives a detailed account of this fall from grace. National art academies and theoreticians came to consider the mimetic warts-and-all allegiance to surfaces as demeaning to art’s poetic grandeur, and artists were encouraged to show a distinctive, personal touch rather than self-effacing verisimilitude. Still life was generally held in contempt as the easiest and least intellectual of genres. Snobbery was also a force, since enjoying the surprise of likeness required no erudition—unlike, say, the unwinding of allegory.

So when a painting by Louis Léopold Boilly was shown at the Salon of 1800, and its eerily believable depiction of collected papers under broken glass proved so popular that a protective barrier had to be erected, it only affirmed the suspicion that illusion appealed to the lowest form of sensation: the desire to reach out and touch. (Titled Un trompe l’oeil, this painting marks the first known use of the term.) The curious late burst of trompe l’oeil painting in America in the nineteenth century attracted little attention in Europe, and in any case arose in a country widely considered artistically unsophisticated. It would not be until the 1930s—once European Surrealists had rehabilitated lookie-likie as a psychoanalytic device—that art institutions began to reconsider the tradition.

The catalog notes tantalizing hints of interest in trompe l’oeil within the Cubist orbit—Apollinaire, for example, left notes suggesting he once considered writing a book on the subject—but it is harder to prove intention than it is to point out resemblance. And the curators acknowledge there is no paper trail demonstrating that Picasso, Braque, or Gris was directly acquainted with the paintings that appear to be such near relations here. The Louvre “kept trompe l’oeil painting at bay,” Cowling tells us, and though the artists might have found some examples in provincial museums, auction houses, or secondhand shops, we don’t know that they did.

More likely vectors of exposure to habits of trompe l’oeil lay outside the world of fine art. The motif of scattered papers, for example, made its way from paintings and drawings to etchings and engravings, and thence to advertising, menu design, and picture postcards of a kind still found on racks in tourist traps. Decorative objects picked up trompe l’oeil motifs, as shown by a vitrine of eighteenth-century dishes painted with woodgrain and stuck-on etchings. It’s the same idea as the little National Gallery picture, with the important difference that deception is a nonstarter, since unlike knotty-pine boards, knotty-pine teapots aren’t actually a thing. One can imagine the shiver of disapproval such nonsensical objects would have sent down the spines of people concerned about the dignity of art. One can also see the foreshadowing of Braque’s metonymic nail.

Most conspicuous of all, the surfaces of French buildings were a riot of fictions, where plaster masqueraded as marble and wood and carved reliefs. Braque might have seen Gijsbrechts’s Attributes of the Painter at the museum in Valenciennes, and Picasso might have come across reproductions of Harnett’s The Old Violin (1886), but they had undoubtedly seen walls painted with pseudo violins tied with pseudo ribbons dangled from pseudo cornices, a motif once a commonplace of French decor. The city street was a crowd-sourced quodlibet writ large.

And here, finally, there is a well-documented, concrete association: Braque had trained in decorative house painting, his family’s business. “The craft side of painting has been of great value to me,” he acknowledged in a much-quoted statement. “Otherwise, I could never have introduced into my own paintings those decorators’ tricks I’ve always used to create trompe l’oeil effects.” Braque’s housepainter past has long been part of the Cubist mythos, often leveraged into a kind of workingman street cred, but here it is granted a particular and critical role. Digging into the material realities of the trade, Claire Le Thomas points out in her catalog essay that decorative painters did not try to break through the wall with illusion but—like Van Mieris and his curtain—to suggest something sitting on top: “The housepainter’s very mode of thinking affected the Cubist treatment of space.”

While the first part of the show makes its case through historical trompe l’oeil paintings the Cubists may never have seen, the second part does so through the kinds of goods they certainly had. Design reformers for the most part concurred with the arbiters of fine art when it came to mimesis. In the 1850s John Ruskin had held that “there is not a meaner occupation for the human mind than the imitation of the stains and striae of marble and wood,” but a splendid group of nineteenth-century chromolithographs showcasing various species of faux bois argues otherwise. Intended for the edification and instruction of the trade, the prints are capable of holding the attention of both eye and mind.

One gallery is given over to rolls and sample books of the wallpapers found in Cubist collages—woodgrains and marbles, but also imitation fabrics, architectural ornaments, and, in one stunner purloined by Gris, Venetian blinds. Their presence here makes it obvious why artists would be drawn to them—beyond just referencing decorative tat, some of them also look great.

Having taken us from the generic to the specific—from wallpaper as a provocative gesture to, say, Isidore Leroy’s pattern 1469—the curators set about interpretation. Barr had been at sixes and sevens about whether the things in Cubist still lifes meant anything at all: on the one hand, he noted, “the Cubists themselves and their most ardent admirers attached little importance to subject matter”; on the other, he was open to Meyer Schapiro’s contention that these were careful stagings of bohemian life. Here the curators sort woodgrains by social milieu (oak for a workers’ bar, mahogany for more upscale establishments) and align wallpaper patterns with gender roles, for example Cowling’s reading of the dianthus-and-lace-pattern wallpaper in Gris’s Guitar and Glass (1914) as suggestive of “tumbled feminine underwear or bedding.”

Part of the delight of trompe l’oeil is the way it relocates, at least for a moment, the edge between art and life. The most dramatic example here is an actual marble tabletop on which Boilly painted a spill of pocket contents—business card, letter, miniature portrait, coins. Collage can do something comparable, as in Picasso’s inclusion of a real calling card whose folded corner has been removed and replaced with a drawn imitation. For both artists, real-world utility and social relationships are at play: Boilly’s tabletop portrays a client, and the business card is his own, with his studio address and directions. The card in Picasso’s work had been left by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, who called when he was out; the collage was a gift to them in response.

Given all these similarities, how did it take a century to see that, as Braun puts it, “qualities commonly attributed to the Cubist revolution existed earlier in trompe l’oeil painting”? The curators suspect the lasting shade cast by twentieth-century critics who, while shunning the old academic rules, had their own reasons for disliking trompe l’oeil. Its penchant for elaboration and distraction was at odds with the modernist instinct to strip things down. Also, the vision of modernism as something decisively and heroically new was hard to give up. Leo Steinberg, who in the 1970s pointed out the continuity between trompe l’oeil manuscript practices and the planar compositional preferences of twentieth-century painting, observed that “awareness of the earlier tradition would make much of modernism a less radical break, more continuous with the past.”

At the same time, you don’t need to be prejudiced against mimesis or committed to modernism’s specialness to recognize that there are obvious differences between Cubism and trompe l’oeil. Even when they share a parts list, they don’t actually look the same or act the same. Trompe l’oeil may flirt with an appearance of imprecision—the flopping canvas corner, the letter about to fall from the rack—but only within adamantine solidity. In Cubism everything skitters: the letters run away from the newspaper, the woodgrain leaves the tabletop, grapes float upward like an ascending Virgin. Similarly, the gotcha effect of trompe l’oeil depends on hiding the truth about its facture: to determine which of Chalfant’s stamps is which, you need a magnifying glass. Cubist collage, by contrast, flaunts self-exposure with its imperfectly adhered papers and visible edges. In one of the Picassos on view, paper cutouts are held in place with pins, as if the tailor had just stepped out to lunch. While both play games that pit what the eye sees against what the mind knows, they do so to different ends: the viewer of a Cubist work may struggle to identify what is depicted in the picture; the viewer of a trompe l’oeil may struggle to identify it as a picture.

The deep thing that they share, beyond the vertical violins and woodgrain—the thing Steinberg recognized and that is getting its due in this show—is a sharp self-awareness about how pictures work, and a willingness to share that awareness with their audience. This kind of reflexive inquiry is an established presence in contemporary art, and for more than half a century trompe l’oeil has been a touchstone for a large number of important artists: Jasper Johns’s invocations of the American trompe l’oeil painter John F. Peto; Gerhard Richter’s paintings of curled pages (as well as curtains); Ed Ruscha’s ribbon words and bugs; Vija Celmins’s picture-within-a-picture drawings and her pairings of found objects and handmade recreations that seem to take a page from Chalfant’s playbook. The duplicity of images is something recent art has given a lot of thought to, not as a sin, but as a manifestation of the most fundamental of human struggles: attempting to make sense of the world. Trompe l’oeil doesn’t need rehabilitation these days, but Cubism might.

For some visitors, the big discovery of “Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition” may be a Cubism that connects not only to older art but also to newer. Barr’s chart was an important contribution to twentieth-century art thought, but it was basically a story about shapes: wiggly shapes on the left (Van Gogh to Non-Geometrical Abstract Art), sharp-elbowed ones on the right (Cézanne to Geometrical Abstract Art), set against the north-to-south progression from shapes that resemble nature to shapes that don’t. Cubism, after all, is named after a shape. And while a hundred years of criticism have brought every analytic mode to bear, from formalism to semiotics and beyond, the breakthroughs of Braque, Picasso, and Gris can still feel like they belong to a different world—a place where form and space were not just the tools but also the ideas.

The sociable, extemporaneous Cubism that fills this show has never commanded the same veneration as its pricklier “analytic” precursor, and it may not have moved the needle of pictorial possibility as abruptly, but it was radically hospitable to the real world, in all its ornery specificity. Included at the Met is a collage by Picasso, Pipe and Sheet Music (1914), that picks up the old trompe l’oeil device of the faux frame, here made of leafy wallpaper trim; in the center is a rough drawing of a white pipe atop some minimally sketched sheet music (“MA JOLIE”) and shafts of speckled color (see illustration at beginning of article). He has endowed both the frame and the glued-down drawing with imposing drop shadows, as if they were actually dimensional and lit from the right. And on the faux frame he has applied a childish cartellino reading “PICASSO.”

“At best superfluous and at worst distracting” was how Barr had summed up the abstractionist view of representation. Pipe and Sheet Music, like the anonymous painting of the Ferdinand Bol etching, is a choreography of feints. Superfluous and distracting is the point. As we now know, for all the inspiration Cubism may once have offered abstractionists, Braque, Picasso, and Gris all remained loyal throughout their lives to the hoary subjects of academic painting—people, landscapes, things on a table. And though trompe l’oeil tropes largely disappeared from their work after World War I, trompe l’oeil’s own reputation began a new ascent. The actual Ferdinand Bol etching depicted in the painting is a lovely piece of work, but really, if you had a choice, which would you take home?