Art History Terminology: trompe l’oeil and di sotto in sù

When studying Western Art History  it is easy to be bombarded with a sea of complex terminology, often with a clear visual meaning and a vital place in art scholarship. So, for my own benefit, and to keep my mind fresh I will go through the jargon I can uproot from my memory.

Trompe l’oeil is a painterly technique used to create the illusion of depth and three-dimensionality. I associate it with dramatic Baroque interior frescoes, designed to trick the eye and create the impression that the walls expand beyond reality, depicting some fantastical scene of a Utopian paradise or even heaven itself.

Di sotto in sù is similar to Trompe l’oeil, meaning ‘seen from below’ it refers specifically to ceiling paintings. This method was developed in fifteenth century Italy and can be seen frequently in churches, a fitting location for such a visually arresting style, which in a holy space would likely inspire the spiritual fervor of all who entered.

Bridal Chamber by Andrea Mantegna

We could not discus  these artistic techniques without referencing one of the earliest and most famous examples. The Camera degli Sposi (bridal chamber) was painted between 1465 and 1474 by Andrea Mantegna for Ludovico III Gonzaga. Ludovico was the powerful ruler of Mantua, and a great patron of the arts, shown for his evident regard for the artist Mantegna who was his court painter and enjoyed the benefits of a flourishing reputation and a substantial salary.

The Camera degli Sposi exists in a small private space, and is a magnificent example of Mantegna’s experimental virtuosity. First we have the Court scene, where we see an informally dressed Ludovico with his wife, receiving a group of courtiers who spill out across the wall merging into a beautifully crafted illusionistic space, which blends seamlessly with the stone Corinthian capitals protruding from the walls.

On the west wall is an idealised meeting between Ludovico, his son Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III and Christian I of Denmark. In the background we can see a view which highlights Mantegna’s training in classical architecture, which undoubtedly influenced his approach to figurative images as well, we can see this here in the solid fullness of his subjects.

Perhaps the most striking part of this collection of frescoes is the di sotto in su ceiling which depicts playful putti clinging onto the balustrades and a whole host of colourful characters, including a peacock, all skillfully foreshortened creating the illusion of an endless sky above and people peering over into the room below.  This is one of the earliest examples of this technique and demonstrates Mantegna’s innovation and desire to exhibit his skills and push boundaries of perspective.

These techniques have been used countless times in art, for the purpose of displaying an artists ability as well as inspiring awe and wonder in all who saw it. Particularly in the fifteenth century these methods would have been fairly new and completely alien to a public more accustomed to schematic altarpieces depicting the Virgin Mary. The developments in art seen through the work of individuals like Mantegna and Giotto much earlier are truly spectacular, and signify an exciting experimental phase in visual culture.

In conclusion I have used the Camera delgi Sposi as an early and groundbreaking example to represent these two terms, but it is important to note that trompe l’oeil and di sotto in su are not methods to be consigned to history and are very much present in contemporary arts today.

There is a tradition in sixteenth and seventeenth century Dutch painting of using trompe l’eoil to depict objects. For example Samuel van Hoogstraten often produced paintings like this such as ‘Letter board’, which serves as a unique record of daily life in his time. We can see similar illusionistic paintings today, such as in the wonderfully delicate work of American Debra Teale. Furthermore grander scale examples, more in the vein of the bombastic trompe l’eoil Baroque interiors, are present in outdoor public paintings, by the likes of Edgar Müllercreating the illusion of gaping cavernous holes or perilous plunging waterfalls. Indeed these contemporary displays of this historic technique convey it’s ability to still delight and capture the imagination of the public today.



Actors, Courtesans and Geisha: Celebrity Culture in Edo Japan

The Edo Period (1603-1868) marked a time in Japanese history which saw immense social, political and artist changes. Artistically there was a growing market for accessible art which could be bought by ordinary people ranging from peasants to the rising merchant class community. The demand for cheaper art saw the development of coloured woodblock printing, which was a radically new technique which made for a much cheaper and more efficient production.

These prints are indicative of the Floating World also referred to as Ukiyo-e which is symbolic of this generation and a new kind of art. Due to Japan’s economic expansion new kinds of entertainment were springing up in the city, Kabuki Theatre, Sumo wrestling and Geisha were all industries which boomed in this time and benefitted from the hedonistic desires of the newly rich. Art and the more accessible woodblock style flourished along with this new ethos, and through it we see a fascinating explosion of celebrity culture and artistic growth.


Kabuki is a style of theatre performed exclusively by men, who would even adopted female roles. It is extremely diverse in its storytelling with narratives displaying epic historic tales to domestic melodramas, however Kabuki performances would last all day and include interludes of dancing as well as elaborate face makeup and costumes. In Tokyo, which was then known as Edo, there were three licensed theatres dedicated to Kabuki, which would perform regularly each season to throngs of people. Naturally there was an increased interest in the actors who took part in these performances, and a heightened need for admirers to obtain images of them.

Figure. 1: Utagawa Kunisada, 1831, Ichikawa Danjuro VII as Matsuomaru in Sugawara and the Secrets of Calligraphy, woodblock print.
Figure. 2: Utagawa Kunisada, Segawa Kikunojo V, 1822, woodblock print.
Figure. 3: Kitagawa Utamaro, Karagoto of the House of Chojiya, date unknown, woodblock print.
Figure. 4: Okumura Masanobu, Two geishas with attendant carrying box for musical instrument, 1755, woodblock print.

Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) was a prolific artistic of the Edo period who themed much of his work around the subject of Kabuki. He depicted stars such as Danjuro VII (Figure. 1) who was so outrageously extravagant he was banished by the government in a censorship crackdown for his luxurious lifestyle. Here we see him in full costume with a savage expression, capturing all the charisma and stage presence he must have possessed as a performer. Female impersonators (onnagata) were first introduced as a way of curbing licentious behaviour in the theatre, despite this the male actors proved to be hugely popular among audiences, and became legendary subjects for many ukiyo-e prints. Performers such as Segawa Kikunojo V (Figure.2) took their female personas so seriously that they often would parade around in full female garb outside of work and would even venture into the female part of bathhouses.


The culture of Courtesans during the Edo period is intrinsically tied up with Yoshiwara which was the official Licenced pleasure district in the city. First established in 1617 on marshy swampland, hence why it is called Yoshiwara meaning Rush Moor, it was swiftly established as an integral part of the city. As Edo grew however it had to move freeing up the land where it stood, the pleasure quarters were then relocated to a site close to Asakusa Temple, which further encouraged business as it allowed for “pilgrims” to take discreet detours allowing them to indulge in their lusty desires.

Girls as young as five were sold to the brothels and trained vigorously as they were expected to be masterful socialisers as well as accomplished. In these communities there was a stringent hierarchy, which differed enormously from one end to the other. Lower down courtesans were confined to the Yoshiwara, not allowed to leave without permission, as well as this they would be required to give a large portion of their earning to the brothel and of course were displayed in a cage like structure, waiting

to receive a patron.  Courtesans of the Yobidashi rank however could move freely and often found immense wealth and fame among the public, who would hungrily purchase woodblock prints of their Image. Kitagawa Utamaro (1753 -1806) was known for his prints of beautiful women and often depicted such famous beauties, who were distinguished from geisha by their elaborate hair styles. A perfect example of this would be this image of Karagoto of the House of Chojiya (Figure. 3) captured in an intimate pose.


Like Courtesans Geisha also drew admirers for their beauty however they were strictly prohibited from selling sexual favours and were instead expected to take on a more erudite role. Geisha would serve as companions to large groups, mainly consisting of men, although there were some male Geisha, it was thought of as a female occupation, and was visually represented through their elaborate Kimonos and painted faces. Geisha were expected to be extremely accomplished, adopting musical and dance skills as well as being educated and able to hold their own in a conversation. In woodblock prints Geisha are much more modestly represented often playing a shamisen or arranging their hair, showcasing their talents and feminine appeal such as in this Masanobu print (Figure.4) of two busy geisha who are elegantly transporting their musical instruments to another performance. In a way these prints probably were used as adverts for their services as well as mementos for their fans.

In conclusion ukiyo-e prints which depict the social trends of the era, perfectly capturing the dynamic changing landscape of Japan in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. This includes the thriving economy and the development of art mediums as well as the emergence of more relatable every day subject matters such as depictions of celebrities who dominated popular media. It is a crucial and fascinating time capsule which is rich with information and beautiful visual details.

Re-imagining Edgar Allen Poe Through the Eyes of Odilon Redon

Since his mysterious and premature death Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) has been a figure of legend, portrayed by many as a tormented romantic, as a result the real Poe has arguably been lost in his own celebrity. Best known for his dark gothic short stories and hauntingly lyrical poems, like ‘the Raven’ Poe is regarded by many as the inventor of the detective story and a major inspiration for the science fiction genre. With his vividly imaginative and disturbingly bloody tales it is inevitable that this visionary writer would attract artists wishing to push boundaries.

Figure 1 Odilon Redon, Chariot of Apollo, 1910, oil and pastel
Figure 2 Odilon Redon, the Crying Spider, 1881, lithograph
Figure 3 Odilon Redon, the Eye like a Strange Balloon mounted towards Infinity, 1882, lithograph
Figure 4 Odilon Redon, a Mask sounds the Death Nell, 1882, lithograph


One such artist was the unique painter, lithographer and illustrator Odilon Redon (1814-1916) Redon painted a variety of subjects, some of which were traditional in nature, such as still life’s, portraits and paintings of Greek mythology. Despite this, his work was often unconventional and exploded with colour, executed with a quick expressive handling of the brush, due to this his paintings were often saturated with a dream like atmosphere that vastly contrasted with the impressionists and their devotion to light and realism. One wonderful example of this is his painting Chariot of Apollo (Figure. 1) here we can see the sun God Apollo glowing with intense light as he rides on his chariot across a brilliant blue sky. Unlike many typical depictions of Greco Roman mythology, seen in the works of Old Masters, Apollo is in not a heroic and relatable human figure, but is symbolically represented as a fiery ball of light.

In addition to Redon’s joyously expressive and bright paintings he was also a skilled lithographer who at some moments in his career harnessed this ability to create dark images which evoked monstrous creatures and reflections of his own inner fantasies and psyche. This is best represented through his early series Noirs where we can see his evident fascination with the scientific world and his own exploration of the psychiatry of dreams. The Crying Spider (figure. 2) is an unsettling and nightmarishly pitiful creation, which perhaps best summarises the depth and originality of his work.

Many parallels can be drawn between Poe and Redon, particularly in terms of the tone of their work, and how innovative they were in their fields. For example like Poe, Redon also influenced generations of artists after him, and particularly left an impression on the Symbolist movement and the Nabis who were drawn to the bright colours of his later career.  It is the darkness of his lithographs however which made him so perfectly qualified to illustrate Poe’s stories.

The titles of this series are all invented by Redon but in the style of Poe, as well as this each illustration does not illustrate a particular scene from a story but aims to capture the mood of the text in one all-encompassing image.

The most iconic lithograph in this series is The Eye like a Strange Balloon mounts towards Infinity (figure. 3) which depicts the unsettling image of a giant eye floating in a bleak landscape, it’s cargo, a conscious severed head. Imagine witnessing this image in a time when the public and members of the art world were accustomed to the work of Monet and Renoir? Instead of gazing upon lush landscapes or scenes of merry young ladies dancing we are challenged with a provocative picture that stirs up emotion and unease in the viewer.

Edgar Allan Poe and the visual interpretation of his work by Odilon Redon found popularity at a very specific period in French History. Arguably they would remain in obscurity if they had appeared at any other period.

Fin de Siecle is a saying which refers to the end of the nineteenth century and is often used in association with Parisian society during the later decades of the 1800s. There was a mood of unrest and a desire for change and progress, and to break away from the decadent romanticism of the early century. Poe became a hero of this pessimistic movement particularly following Baudelaire’s translation of this stories in 1865. The art world also saw a rise in symbolism and a more personal  imaginative response to art, as the concept of ‘art for arts sake’ became a more prevalent idea.

In conclusion these wonderfully strange illustrations of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories represent a specific period in French History, and capture the dark mood of the latter part of the nineteenth century. In addition to this we can see the innovation which sprung from this time and the radical break from realism and traditional depictions of mythology and narrative, portraying something provocative and fantastical.