Lost Illusions: From Trompe l’Oeil to Cubism

Juan Gris: The Guitar, 1913, oil on canvas and paper collage, 24 by 19 inches.

The inventors of Cubism, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso, replaced perspective with a new kind of pictorial space: instead of receding into the distance, their paintings seemed to advance toward the viewer in a series of overlapping planes. In 1911 they supplemented representation with simulation, adding stenciled letters and patches of wood-graining to their paintings. In 1912 they glued actual strips of newspaper, wallpaper, and other materials to the surfaces. Their colleague Juan Gris went a step further and inserted old engravings, creating pictures within pictures. The heroic story of how Braque, Picasso, and Gris invented a new pictorial space and a new medium—collage—is a staple of textbooks and introductory courses on art history.

And yet … what art historian, walking through a gallery of American art, has not paused in front of an earlier trompe l’oeil painting by John Frederick Peto or William Michael Harnett and thought, “Isn’t this awfully like a Cubist painting?” Overlapping planes? Check. Wood-graining? Check. Printed lettering? Check. Even the subject matter—violins or other musical instruments suspended from walls and panels—directly anticipates that of Cubist still life.

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