"Cubism and the Trompe l'Oeil Tradition" at The Met Fifth Avenue

The Met

Cubism and the Trompe l'Oeil Tradition at The Met Fifth Avenue

Exhibition Dates: October 20, 2022 –January 22, 2023
Member Preview Date: October 18, 2022
Exhibition Location: The Met Fifth Avenue, Gallery 199

The major international loan exhibition Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition will present an entirely new understanding of Cubism by connecting it to the strategies, motifs, and storied reception of trompe l’oeil (“deceive the eye”) illusionism. Opening at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on October 20, 2022, the transhistorical exhibition will bring together more than 100 objects, the majority being by the three Cubists who concertedly addressed the practice of trompe l’oeil in the years 1909-1915: Georges Braque, Juan Gris, and Pablo Picasso. Their paintings and collages (and, in the case of Picasso, sculptures) will be paired with celebrated works by European and American artists from the 17th through the 19th century—from Samuel van Hoogstraten and Cornelius Norbertus Gijsbrechts, to Louis Léopold Boilly and William Harnett. Though these trompe l’oeil painters were often disparaged for merely copying nature, they filled their pictures with ingenious tricks and sophisticated allusions, elevating the seemingly humble genre of still life. As the exhibition will reveal, the Cubists both parodied and paid homage to classic trompe l’oeil devices, while inventing new ways of confounding the eye and the mind. Despite vast differences in overall appearance, both art forms interrogated the nature of representation, raising philosophical questions about the real and the fake, and the ephemeral and the enduring, that resonate powerfully today.

The exhibition is made possible by the Barrie A. and Deedee Wigmore Foundation.

Additional support is provided by the Gail and Parker Gilbert Fund, the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Charitable Trust, an Anonymous Foundation, the Diane W. and James E. Burke Fund, and the Janice H. Levin Fund.

Exhibition Overview

Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition vividly lays out two parallel dialogues: between Cubism and earlier still life painters and between viewers and the images made to dupe and delight them. It demonstrates that many aspects characteristic of Cubism in fact had precedents in historic trompe l’oeil painting: the emphatically flat picture surface piled with music scores, newspapers, and other printed matter; the eye-fooling mimicry of materials; and word and image puns that allude to the artist, patrons, and the art market. A common conceit of trompe l’oeil painting involved objects that tantalizingly appear to cross the threshold between the pictorial and the viewer’s space, beckoning touch, and the Cubists delighted in similarly exploiting the allure of projecting table drawers, utensils, pipes, and playing cards. Depictions of the studio with paintbrushes, palettes, and easels served as erudite meta-representations of the tools of the trade of visual deception. Pictures within pictures and signatures embedded in letters, calling cards, and nameplates all formed part of a larger self-referential iconography, shared by earlier trompe l’oeil artists and Cubists alike. The faux-wood grain surfaces so typical of Cubist painting and papiers collés (paper collage) also have a long history in the letter racks, table-tops and board paintings of the trompe l’oeil tradition—as does the playful motif of a nail casting a shadow.

In their own deconstruction of Western illusionism, the Cubists wittily enlisted trompe l’oeil techniques, especially in their still lifes composed with real and simulated materials. After cutting and pasting actual papers in their pictures, they trumped their own invention with deceptive faux collage, subtly building up areas of paint in tangibly paper-thin relief. Real shadows, cast by lifting or pinned papers, were played off against life-like shadows rendered in pencil and charcoal. Sleights of the handmade and the machine-made added new levels of truth and falsehood. 

Organized into 10 thematic rooms, the exhibition opens with Pliny the Elder’s origin story (A.D. 77) of trompe l’oeil in the contest between Zeuxis and Parrhasius, wherein Zeuxis painted a picture of grapes so realistically that birds swooped down to peck at them. Yet Zeuxis, was then himself deceived when he asked for the curtain in front of Parrhasius’ painting to be removed, for it was not real but illusory. Not by chance, curtains and, especially, grapes appear in Cubist pictures in key moments of the movement’s development. Well-aware of the rhetoric and competitive practice of trompe l’oeil, the Cubists engaged in a contest of creative one-upmanship among themselves and with virtuosos from the past. The subsequent thematic rooms are: “Things on a Wall”; “Trompe l’Oeil and the Artisanal Tradition”; “Things on a Table;” “Shadow Play;” “Paragone” (the competition between painting and sculpture); “The World of Wallpapers;” “The Typography of Trompe l’Oeil;” “Papyrophilia” (the love of papers); and “The Artist Is Present.” The installation will include a selection of the actual trompe l’oeil wallpapers—displayed in rolls and albums—used by the Cubists in their collages. Another section is devoted to the artisanal skills of mimicking wood and marble surfaces and relief moldings, a tradition in which Braque was trained. Moving back and forth across the centuries, the exhibition underscores the intersections between high art and popular culture in the trompe l’oeil game and its subversive agenda to overturn hierarchies of taste and status.

This groundbreaking exhibition demonstrates the impact of the transformative gift of the Leonard A. Lauder Cubist Collection: 13 out of the 112 works come from that collection. The Met is grateful to the many lenders for their exceptional generosity, with special acknowledgment to the Musée National Picasso-Paris and the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Additional lenders include: Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris; Musée National de Céramique, Sèvres; Musée du Papier Peint, Rixheim, France; Kunstmuseum Bern; Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid; Tate, London; Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden; Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Art Institute of Chicago; Yale University Art Gallery; Philadelphia Museum of Art.

This exhibition is a participant in the international Celebration Picasso 1973–2023, which marks the fiftieth anniversary of the artist’s death.

Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition is co-curated by Emily Braun, Distinguished Professor at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the Curator of the Leonard A. Lauder Collection, and Elizabeth Cowling, Professor Emerita at the University of Edinburgh with assistance from Sean O’Hanlan, Research Associate in the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Met.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by The Met and distributed by Yale University Press. The first volume ever on the subject of Cubism and trompe l’oeil painting, it presents major research and new interpretation in groundbreaking essays by exhibition curators Braun and Cowling, French scholar Claire Le Thomas and Paper Conservator at The Met, Rachel Mustalish. The publication will be available for purchase from The Met Store.

The catalogue is made possible by the Mellon Foundation.



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