The term illusionism is used to describe a painting that creates the illusion of a real object or scene, or a sculpture where the artist has depicted figure in such a realistic way that they seem alive

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  • Edward Collier, 'A Trompe l'Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board' circa 1699
    Edward Collier
    A Trompe l'Oeil of Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board circa 1699
    Oil on canvas
    support: 588 x 462 mm
    Purchased 1984
  • Francesco Sleter, 'A Representation of the Liberal Arts: Ceiling Design for the State Dining Room at Grimsthorpe Castle' circa 1724
    Francesco Sleter
    A Representation of the Liberal Arts: Ceiling Design for the State Dining Room at Grimsthorpe Castle circa 1724
    Oil on canvas
    support: 613 x 762 mm
    Purchased 1982
  • Salvador Dalí, 'Metamorphosis of Narcissus' 1937
    Salvador Dalí
    Metamorphosis of Narcissus 1937
    Oil on canvas
    support: 511 x 781 mm
    frame: 820 x 1092 x 85 mm
    Purchased 1979© Salvador Dali, Gala-Salvador Dali Foundation/DACS, London 2002

The term is often used specifically in relation to the decorative schemes used in buildings in Baroque art, especially ceiling paintings, in which the artist uses perspective and foreshortening to create, for example, the illusion that the ceiling is open to the sky and peopled by figures such as angels or saints.

High levels of illusionism are also typically found in seventeenth-century still life paintings, for example in the work of Edward Collier. Such effects are also sometimes referred to as ‘trompe l’oeil’, a French phrase meaning ‘deceives the eye’.

In modern art theory illusionism has been frowned upon on the grounds that it denies the basic truth of the flatness of the canvas. However, surrealist artists such as Salvador Dalí and René Magritte have used it to great effect to evoke the alternative world of the unconscious mind.