The Reverse of a Framed Painting, and Other Trompe L’oeil by Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts (ca. 1670)

On Easter Sunday 1669, the diarist Samuel Pepys was bowled over by the ability of the Dutch painter Simon Verelst (1644-1710),

who took us to his lodging close by, and did shew us a little flower-pot of his doing, the finest thing that ever, I think, I saw in my life; the drops of dew hanging on the leaves, so as I was forced, again and again, to put my finger to it, to feel whether my eyes were deceived or no. He do ask 70l. for it: I had the vanity to bid him 20l.; but a better picture I never saw in my whole life; and it is worth going twenty miles to see it.

Around the time Pepys was poking the painting of Verelst, another northern European painter, Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts, was also causing confusion with the brush, creating his masterpiece known as The Reverse of a Framed Painting (ca. 1670), an image that is, to modern eyes at least, his most striking.

Gijsbrechts was a master of trompe l’oeil, the technique of painting in which the painter tricks the viewer into perceiving that they are looking at an actual three-dimensional scene, rather than merely a representation of a three-dimensional scene on a flat plane. The name trompe l’oeil, or “deceive the eye”, didn’t come into use until Louis-Léopold Boilly showed a painting of this name at the Paris Salon of 1800, but the technique stretches back to antiquity. Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis Historia gives a story of Zeuxis and Parrhasius in the fifth century BC competing as to who was the greater artist. Zeuxis’ painting of grapes is so realistic that birds swoop down to peck at them, but when Zeuxis follows a request that he should pull back the curtain covering his painting, Parrhasius’ superior skill is unveiled: the curtain itself is the painting, so cleverly rendered that it is indistinguishable from the real. Italian Quattrocento artists, with their interest in perspective, revived trompe l’oeil, and in the seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish artists built on their facility for still lives with further movement towards life-likeness. Gijsbrechts was among their number.

Born in Antwerp around 1625, Gijsbrechts criss-crossed northern Europe, eventually dying probably around 1675. He had a son, Franciscus Gijsbrechts, also a painter, with his wife Anna Moons, whom he married in 1648, although by 1659 he enlisted as a member of the Sodality of the Unmarried Men of Age. His biography at RKD, the Netherlands Institute for Art History, traces him from Regensburg, through Hamburg to Copenhagen, where he spent the period from 1668–1672 as a court painter, and where most of his remaining paintings can be found. Most of these, below, are from the collection of Denmark's Statens Museum for Kunst.

Gijsbrecht’s trompe l’oeil paintings depict some traditional objects: an impressively luxurious breakfast spread, a letter rack, falconry equipment, or two dead birds. A Cabinet in the Artist’s Studio includes within its selection of artist’s items a portrait that seems to be of Gijsbrecht himself. But it’s his The Reverse of a Framed Painting that is most unusual. SMK Curator Eva de la Fuente Pedersen explains:

When viewed from a distance we are genuinely fooled into believing that the artist has left a painting standing on the floor with its back turned outwards. As you approach the painting its deception is revealed. What appeared to be the back of a framed painting is actually the front of a canvas. The deception is evoked by means of shadows: the shadows cast by the decorative frame onto the stretcher; the shadows cast by the stretcher onto the back of the canvas, and the shadows cast by the small note and the nails. In order for the deception to fully work the painting should be placed so that its faux shadows are in keeping with the light sources available in the room in which it is placed.

Pedersen supposes that the painting was shown, amidst other playfully deceptive works, in the King’s Perspective Chamber which formed part of the Royal Danish Cabinet of Curiosities around 1700, when Gijsbrechts was in Copenhagen. More than 300 years later it continues to intrigue, striking us as a strangely modern work, in which we could see various prefigurings of later artistic movements. It partakes in, and simultaneously pokes fun at, figurative art. It hints at a fascination with the materiality of painting, the substance as the subject. There’s also something about the use of rectilinear lines to show us the reverse of an image which, albeit accidentally, somehow foreshadows a very modern obsession with the non-representational image (the “non-image”, if you will), as expressed so strikingly in Kasimir Malevich’s Black Square (1915) and other subsequent abstract works of the twentieth century.

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