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The Art of Realism

The Delight of Deception
Nicola di Maestro Antonio (di Antonio)<br/> Italian, 1460–1500<br/><em>Madonna and Child Enthroned</em>, c. 1490<br/>Tempera and oil on panel<br/> The John R. Van Derlip Fund.
  Nicola di Maestro Antonio (di Antonio)
Italian, 1460–1500
Madonna and Child Enthroned, c. 1490
Tempera and oil on panel
The John R. Van Derlip Fund.


Has a painting ever played tricks on your eyes?

When art looks really real, it is called trompe l'oeil, a French term meaning "fool the eye." This Christian painting of Mary and baby Jesus contains a great example of trompe l'oeil: check out the fly near the foot of Mary's throne. It looks so real, it's tempting to brush it off the canvas!

How do you think the artist created this effect using paint?

Nicola di Maestro Antonio carefully selected his colors to create texture. He used perspective, a method of combining lines to create the illusion of depth, and also carefully painted shadows to give the figures a 3-D effect. Artists like di Antonio enjoyed painting beautiful pictures that viewers could experience both visually and emotionally. They believed people could feel more connected to paintings that looked realistic.

Di Antonio painted during the early Renaissance, a period of cultural rebirth in Europe. European artists began to use ancient Greek and Roman art as inspiration for their own artwork. They liked how ancient artists portrayed natural-looking people and objects. Even though figures were often idealized, they were dramatic, emotional, and humanlike.

The still life at the bottom of this painting may look realistic, but it also contains hidden meanings. Renaissance artists often put symbols, or iconography, into their art. The fly stands for evil, while the gourds stand for its antidote. The coral necklace around baby Jesus's neck was a charm against evil.

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1. This painting is an allegory, containing symbols that have deeper meanings. The pots and pans represent the four elements: fire, water, earth, and air. Cornelis Delff, Dutch, 1571–1643. Allegory of the Four Elements, c. 1600. Oil on canvas. The Walter H. and Valborg P. Ude Memorial Fund.
2. This etching was inspired by Magritte's earlier painting, La Trahison des images, which featured a realistic-looking pipe and a caption that read "This is not a pipe." Magritte reminds the viewer that, no matter how realistic an image looks, it's not actually real. René Magritte, Belgian, 1898–1967. Ceci n'est pas une pipe (This is not a pipe), 1962. Etching. Gift of Martin Weinstein. ©Charly Herscovici, Brussels / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
3. John Frederick Peto was skilled at painting trompe l'oeil illusions. It's hard to believe this is a painting—not a carved door. John Frederick Peto, American, 1854–1907. Reminiscence of 1865, after 1900. Oil on canvas. The Julia B. Bigelow Fund by John Bigelow.


January 2013