The Trompe l’Oeil Paintings at Oak Spring, Virginia” offers insights into a little-celebrated genre of painting that sets out to deceive the eye.
But the book’s bigger trick, hinted at in the title, was in exploring how two such artworks, commissioned by Paul Mellon and his wife, Rachel “Bunny” Mellon, at their Oak Spring estate in Upperville, provided a curio cabinet of objects of great personal meaning. In these painted depictions of books, shells, pruners and baskets, we glimpsed the inner lives of a famously private high-profile couple.
The Mellons amassed hundreds of paintings during their lives, all of them of high quality and many by great artists, though they bought pictures for the simple reason that they liked them and they fit into their collecting interests, not merely as art assets. They ended up giving most of the paintings to institutions under their patronage, particularly the National Gallery of Art, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond and the Yale Center for British Art. But the two artworks at their Virginia country estate, Oak Spring, remain firmly in place years after their deaths (his in 1999, hers in 2014).
The paintings are both trompe l’oeil – “deceive the eye” – oil compositions on canvas affixed to cabinetry. They both dated to 1959 by two artists working in markedly different scale. The first, by the English artist Martin Battersby, was tucked inside a cabinet in the living room of the house. The second, by the French painter Fernand Renard was on a much grander scale and defined the vestibule of Bunny Mellon’s greenhouse.
Trompe l’oeil paintings, murals and trellis art sought to trick the mind into thinking depicted objects were real and existed in a tangible space. In one sense, all representative painting was such an illusion, taking a flat surface and presenting it as three dimensional. At their most effective, explained Lucia Tongiorgi Tomasi in Paul and Bunny Mellon, trompe l’oeil paintings created a form of “visual hallucination”.
The trompe l’oeil artist amplifiesd the illusion through the choice of subjects and the mastery of brushwork, light effects, foreshortening and other techniques. The still-life paintings of the 17th Century Golden Age of Dutch painting came close to that threshold, though artists such as William Michael Harnett, more than two centuries later, marched right across it. One of his ingeniously deceptive works, After the Hunt, invited the viewer to put on the hat and grab the hunting horn off its peg.
The trompe l’oeil paintings at Oak Spring were intriguing expressions of the technique. The living room trompe l’oeil paled in size to the greenhouse work, but was in its own right an ambitious work. It consisted of a pair of canvases attached to the doors of a cupboard, itself concealed inside a cabinet. Battersby depicted 20 or so leather-bound volumes, a decorative box from which spilled a beribboned cameo, a stuffed white dove, four shells and a silver cup with a single carnation. In the vein of the Dutch still life, the composition had its memento mori, here an hourglass.
The books, in particular, spoke to Paul Mellon’s penchant for satire and culture, and included a depiction of a 1759 edition of Voltaire’s Candide and a 1632 English edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, as well as 18th-century novels by the influential English writers William Beckford and Horace Walpole.
“Vathek and The Castle of Otranto both left their mark on English culture between the Enlightenment and the pre-Romantic period, and Paul must have found them greatly to his taste,” explained Tomasi, an Italian historian who spent extended periods of study at the library of rare botanical books at Oak Spring.
Historically, trompe l’oeil had been disdained in some quarters as a lesser art form, merely “an optical trick”, as Tomasi reminded us. But the everyday character of the subjects can powerfully place quotidian life into sharp relief.
Tomasi wrote: “What is most striking about the trompe l’oeil by Battersby is the contrast it presents between the apparent immediacy of the moment captured – with books left open by their owner, loose drawings tacked to the shelves, butterflies about to take wing – and the quality of perfect stillness that imbues the picture with each object seemingly frozen in time as the sands of the hourglass slowly run out.”
Bunny Mellon, as much a Francophile as her husband was an Anglophile, turned to the Parisian painter Renard for her greenhouse. The vestibule of the entrance pavilion sat between the two wings of the glasshouse in what otherwise would be a place of utility. Renard’s work adorned three of the vestibule’s four walls. Again, cupboard doors revealed additional painted surfaces.
Bunny Mellon made it clear that, to her, the act of gardening was every bit as exalted as collecting rare books, paintings and other artworks pertaining to horticulture and botany.
Renard spent months painting the everyday objects that were the stuff of trompe l’oeil artists, including wicker baskets (Bunny Mellon was a collector), garden tools, a basket of eggs, twine and various fruits and vegetables.