This art exhibit isn't what it seems

Trompe l'oeil – a French phrase meaning "deceive the eye" – describes a genre of painting in which the skillful hand of the artist pulls a fast one on the unreliable eye of the viewer. An object that is only paint on canvas masquerades as the thing itself.

Trompe l'oeil paintings take realism to its furthest extreme. In a tale from antiquity about the technique, skillfully rounded daubs of pigment appeared as grapes real enough to attract a hungry bird.

Samuel van Hoogstraten, a Dutch painter who mastered the skill, observed in 1678: "A perfect painting is like a mirror of Nature, in which things that are not there appear to be there, and which deceives in an acceptable, amusing and praiseworthy fashion."

The National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., now provides the opportunity to explore this artistic subdivision in "Deceptions and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil Painting," the largest-ever exhibition of the genre. From mid-17th century pictures of virtually edible grapes to eerie modern compositions that challenge the nature of human sense-perception, this exhibit with a sense of humor makes a profound point: Things are not always what they seem.

One of the most enduring subjects in trompe l'oeil painting is the "letter-rack picture," popular with artists since the Renaissance. It ostensibly offers the viewer real pieces of paper and objects tucked within lines of ribbon tacked to a flat surface. Its foremost American practitioner was 19th-century artist John Frederick Peto, who produced numerous canvases similar to the one pictured here.

In contrast to many trompe l'oeil paintings, Peto's work has a quality of humility and simplicity, evoked by the everyday objects he chooses to paint: a torn label, a postcard, a dinner check. The trademark Peto envelope labeled "Important Information Inside," featured in many of the artist's pictures, appears here at the lower edge of the rack, in the center. The artist has tricked us into wanting to pick that envelope off the rack and peek inside, only to discover the important information about trompe l'oeil: It's only paint.

• 'Deception and Illusions: Five Centuries of Trompe l'Oeil Painting' is on view at The National Gallery through March 2, 2003.

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