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Bedrogen ogen: geschilderde illusies van Cornelius Gijsbrechts

The eye deceived: painted illusions by Cornelius Gijsbrechts Exhibition: 5 February - 15 May 2005

Museum press release, 29 November 2004

An exhibition of paintings by Cornelius Gijsbrechts aptly entitled Eyes deceived will be on view in the Mauritshuis from 5 February to 15 May 2005. This Southern-Netherlandish painter was a master in trompe-l’oeils, literally ‘deceptions of the eye’. Various 17th-century artists tried their hand at this genre; Gijsbrechts, however, made it his speciality. His semi-open cabinets, letter racks and ‘reversed canvases’ continue to mislead us time and again. In 1668 this presumably Flemish painter entered the service of the Danish court, where he produced a unique series of trompe-l’oeil paintings for Frederik III and later for Christian V. This is the first time that these paintings, now in the Statens Museum in Copenhagen, will be shown in The Netherlands.

The painter

Cornelius Gijsbrechts is thought to have come from Antwerp. We have only scant information about his dates of birth and death and his artistic training. His earliest paintings, dating from about 1657, are traditional still lifes. As of 1662, however, he began producing trompe-l’oeil still lifes. In those years he was active in Germany, probably in Hamburg, among other cities. He subsequently went to work in Denmark. Although little is known about Gijsbrechts, his paintings bespeak a creative individual with a sense of humour. And, that he was proud of his craftsmanship is beyond doubt, for he very subtly introduced his self-portrait in several of his works.

Productive years at the Danish royal court

In September 1668, the Danish king Frederik III (1609-1670) appointed Gijsbrechts as his court painter. In this position, which he held until 1672, he would become one of the most innovative trompe-l’oeil painters in Europe. In 1672 he moved to Stockholm, where he lived for a few years, and then went on to seek his fortune again in Germany. In 1675 he probably resided in Breslau (presently Wroclaw in Poland). His trail dies out thereafter.

Eyes deceived

The so-called letter racks are deceptively realistic. Red horizontal and vertical ribbons, behind which letters and other papers could be stuck, appear to be ‘nailed’ to these boards. It all seems true-to-life, however the storage bags, combs, writing implements and the ever-recurring green curtain are all painted. Texts and illustrations on documents and letters tell a story: sometimes about Gijsbrechts’ personal life, sometimes about current events.

Gijsbrechts explored the limits of the genre and pushed his illusionism further than any painter before him. For example, in 1670 he painted two ‘little art cabinets’, in which he combined the two-dimensional depiction with three-dimensional reality. The cabinets are made of coarse wood and have a stained-glass door, making it seem as though we can look in.

In the case of one of the cabinets, the door is closed, but the lock and key are real so that the door can actually be opened. The other cabinet, on the other hand, is painted half-open but cannot be closed because the hinges and the lock are painted. In both cabinets, the painted exotic objects are seductively realistically displayed. A painter’s easel, which together with two paintings and painter’s attributes has been sawed from a thick oak panel, literally puts the viewer on the wrong track.

The most surprising trompe-l’oeil at the exhibition is the painting with the painted verso. Gijsbrechts’ ingenuity reaches a high point here: he managed to turn the back of a painting into an independent work of art. Even the back of the frame is depicted with black brushstrokes and the edges of the canvas are just visible along the frame, held in place by tiny painted nails.


A Dutch catalogue, in which all the paintings are described and illustrated in colour, accompanies the exhibition. Published by Waanders.


TNT is the exclusive sponsor of the exhibition The eye deceived.