Today, we wage a scientific debate on canvas. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A man walks by Rembrandt's
house in 17th-century Amsterdam. Rembrandt's
servant girl looks out the window. Next day, same
window, same girl. Days later the man realizes he's
being duped. It's not the girl at all. It's a
marvelously realistic painting.
Here's a fine Dutch painting of flowers. They're so
realistic that a bee has landed on one. Now look
more closely. The bee, it turns out, is part of the
painting. When realism turns into that kind of
visual deception, we call it trompe-l'oeil. That
means, a trick of the eye.
By 1650 the ghosts of Plato and Aristotle had
grappled in strange combat for over a century. The
Platonic scientists -- the last alchemists --
believed that knowledge is born in our intuition.
But now a new breed of Aristotelians was saying,
No! We learn through our senses, not through
That combat took its oddest turn in these eerie
paintings. Science and art now had new tools. We
were measuring nature with microscopes and
telescopes. We'd wed perspective drawing to
Euclidian geometry. Anatomists had been in league
with artists for 150 years. All that had driven art
to uncanny realism.
Seventeenth-century artists remembered the Greek
painter Zeuxis. He was Plato's contemporary. We're
told that birds came to peck at the fruit he drew.
But Zeuxis struggled with a Platonic question. How
do you paint the perfect Helen? He tied his
artistic realism to Platonic ideals. He was after
more than a record of external reality.
The Platonists of 1650 didn't see that kind of
idealism in the new art. They didn't like the way
artists fixated on the external world. But they did
like the message in illusionistic painting. It was
that our senses can fool us -- that the mind might
be a more realistic instrument than the eyes after
Our Houston Fine Arts Museum is mounting two
exhibits, even as I write. One's a set of Leonardo
da Vinci's anatomical drawings. He was the first
and greatest of these new realists.
The other exhibit, called The Age of the Marvelous,
tells what followed Leonardo. First it shows the
new artistic science in its purest form. But it
also shows pictures that're pure visual treachery.
Those grand illusions actually sound a warning from
the losing Platonic scientists.
They remind us that reality can be every bit as
deceptive as our imagination can. They remind us
that science will uncover the world's secrets only
when we keep our minds, as well as our eyes, wide
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Wheelock, A.K., Trompe-l'oeil Painting: Visual
Deceptions or Natural Truths? The Age of The
Marvelous. (Joy Kenseth, ed.) Hanover, NH:
Hood Museum of Art -- Dartmouth College, 1991, pp.
For more on the Age of the Marvelous exhibit, see
Episode 701. I am
especially grateful to Alison Eckman and Sandra
Zavaleta from The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for
their help with this episode. Other Engines
episodes related to the shift to the external eye
of renaissance art include Episodes 111, 327,
474, 511, 549,
598, 603, 610,
613, 614, 637,
689, and 701.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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