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image icon 'Trompe l'oeil'

'Trompe l'oeil'
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is an image, from about 1838, that appears at first glance to be an almost-photographic depiction of a variety of documents that have been arranged informally on a tabletop. It is, however, a very carefully organised 'trompe-l'oeil' composition, created in watercolour, pen and ink, and measuring 44.5 cm x 55.5 cm, by the artist, C H T Costantini (1803-60). Among the documents are a sketch of Lord Byron, a sailing ship, a bank note, sheet music, playing cards and postcards from different places around the globe.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is an example of trompe-l'oeil art - 'trompe l'oeil' is a French term that means, literally, to 'trick the eye'; trompe-l'oeil painting was a popular form of art in the 18th century; it entertained by creating visual illusions, in which other objects or meanings are disguised and often only seen on a second glance
  • demonstrates the illustrative and creative skills of the artist in creating visual 'tricks' - within the arrangement of the scattered papers is an accurately detailed banknote, a reminder of Costantini's skills in forgery (he was a convict artist, who had been transported for forgery); the work can be viewed either way up; it was probably meant to be placed under glass on a table or desk to be read from above; viewed one way, the ship 'Le blonde' is sailing above an upside-down artist's signature; viewed the other, the signature appears on top, which suggests that the ship is sinking
  • expresses a spirit of creative play that can be linked (in Western art) to the work of the 16th-century Italian artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-93) and the fantastical inventions of 20th-century Surrealist artists, particularly Max Ernst (1891-1976), Salvador Dali (1904-89), and Renee Magritte (1898-1967); it can also be linked to the well-known trompe-l'oeil art of another 20th-century artist, M C Escher (1898-1972)
  • is a rare example of this form of art within this period - two known works by Costantini (including this work) are the only examples of this form of expression within Australian colonial art
  • reveals a quirky, humorous side to Australian colonial art
  • can be linked to age-old cultural traditions from many parts of the world - for example, shape-play and fantastical forms, based on hybrids of different creatures, are features of Bronze-Age Celtic art
  • is the work of a convict artist - Costantini was sentenced in England for forgery and transported to Van Diemen's Land (later Tasmania) in 1827; he was among Tasmania's first professional artists, all of whom arrived as convicts in the 1820s.