Fool The Eyes: Artists Who Use Their Skills To Challenge Our Perception (Part 3)

In two earlier posts we described the work of artists who create artwork that challenges the viewer’s perception – work that goes beyond simple representation and fools the eye as well as tricking the mind.

The first post looked at anamorphic perspective and how a scene painted on a flat surface – when viewed from a specific point – could be transformed into a convincing version of deep space or a home for hidden symbolism.

The second post showed the work of two artists who have used improbable objects (or creatures) as believable stand-ins for common elements of portraiture. One of the artists also asks viewers to look more closely at the materials used. Are they real or are they simulations?

This third post in our series looks at two artists – separated by nearly 100 years – who just flat out want to trick viewers into thinking they’re seeing real things, not a painting or a sculpture depicting those things.

The first artist is the 19th century painter William Harnett. Harnett was part of a larger tradition in art history that is generally categorized using the French term “trompe l’oeil” meaning “deceives the eye.”

Harnett came to the United States from Ireland in the mid 1800s and worked for years in the meticulous and demanding craft of metal and wood engraving. While working as an engraver he also took painting classes.

In 1880 Harnett returned to Europe for a few years to continue his studio education. It was during this time abroad that he settled on his goal of painting scenes celebrating the objects of everyday life. His most famous images from that period are a series of four hyper realistic paintings, each titled “After The Hunt.”

hyper realistic painting by William Harnett

For the rest of his career Harnett continued to paint intimate still lifes set in shallow space. Building on his training as an engraver he focused more and more on capturing the small details of each object… details that revealed age, weathering and damage caused by repeated handling.

hyper realistic painting by William Harnett

This focus on everyday objects made Harnett’s paintings popular with middle class merchants who bought art. The paintings were often exhibited in public places such as taverns and offices. In these environments Harnett’s paintings were usually the subjects of vigorous discussion and comment. A saloon in New York City, for example, took bets on which elements were real and which were illusions.

hyper realistic painting by William Harnett

Our second artist is the sculptor Duane Hanson.

Hanson – who died in 1996 – was known for creating life size, ultra realistic sculptures of human figures. Some of his sculptures are made of fiberglass and some are bronze. With both materials the sculptures started from castings of actual people.

Once the form was complete Hanson carefully painted the surface of the figures (including details like blemishes, varicose veins and bruises) and added hair (including eyelashes and body hair). The finished figures were then dressed in clothes he found in thrift stores. The final touch was the addition of props such as shopping bags, luggage, handcarts, tools etc.

hyper realistic fiberglass sculptures by Duane Hanson

Hanson’s early sculpture from the middle 1960s focused on dramatic scenes depicting hot social topics of the day such as abortion, race riots and the Vietnam War. In the 1970s he shifted his attention to more subtle and timeless forms that captured universal qualities of the average person in middle America.

hyper realistic fiberglass sculptures by Duane Hansen

Although they share some superficial qualities with wax museum figures and store mannequins, Hanson’s sculptures are much more poignant and insightful. They describe aspects of the human condition as seen in a particular time and place. Ultimately his figures are archetypes that represent all of us.

hyper realistic fiberglass sculptures by Duane Hansen

Both Harnett and Hanson focused on common everyday things. They both paid a huge amount of attention to the details of their subjects – details that reveal the effects of time and use. In both Harnett’s paintings and Hanson’s sculptures nothing is new, untouched or stylized. Every element has a story to tell, and it’s a familiar tale we easily recognize.


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