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  • Writer's pictureElizabeth Li

History of the Artistic Philosophies on Illusionism

Updated: May 22, 2022

Figure 1: Ceiling Fresco in the Camera degli Sposi, 1465-74, Andrea Mantegna


Before starting any discussion on the history of illusionism, we must first understand what it means. An intimidating term, "illusionism" means something that general art audiences are most familiar with –– works of art that appear to be in the physical dimension of the viewer or that represent appearances (such as figure 1). Perhaps the word "real" comes to mind, but "illusionism" is not synonymous with "realism." While the latter confines to purely natural subjects without fiction, the former has no such limitation. A piece can convey depth and space without being realistic, like Relativity (figure 2) by M.C. Escher. The lighting and form of its staircases sell us a convincing reality despite the knowledge that people cannot walk on walls (yet). Such is the versatility and potential of illusionism, and its purpose has been discussed for millenniums.

Figure 2: Relativity, 1953, M.C. Escher


The first idea that came to mind when I was brainstorming for this article was Rene Magritte's The Treachery of Images (figure 3). A simple pipe, not hyper-realistic but believable, accompanied by the infamous line "Ceci n'est pas une pipe," French for "This is not a pipe." How is it not a pipe? Could it be a sideways nose? These are the questions I asked when I first saw this work. But the idea behind it is straightforward –– it is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. Images, no matter how convincing, will always be trapped in their two-dimensional plane, and hence, it is an illusion.

Figure 3: The Treachery of Images, 1929, Rene Magritte


Western art has been obsessed with realistic depictions since ancient times, from Classical times to the Renaissance onwards, with only the Middle Ages as a break. For the Ancient Greeks, an idealized statue of a god or goddess embodied the spirit of that deity (figure 4). This belief is reflected in the myth of Pygmalion, a sculptor who falls in love with his own creation that later comes to life – Ancient Greeks believed that through perfection, they breathed life into stone. However, exceptions were made to this ideology, one by the renowned philosopher Plato. In his theory of forms and of mimesis, Plato asserted that all things had an ideal, intangible, and perhaps abstract form, and that art representing these metaphysical ideas were merely their shadows. The inability of images at representing ideas, especially religious or spiritual ones, was certainly a sound argument for some in the couple of millenniums that followed, as shown by periodic of aniconism in Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). From a modern viewpoint, we know that Plato's theory is flawed because many of today's modern technological creations leaped from sketches and diagrams produced not by nature or the divine, but by human intellect. However, his questions about the function of images will continue well beyond the pagan gods.

Figure 4: Bronze statue of Zeus or Poseidon, 460 BCE, Unknown Artist

Illusionism was in conflict with Christianity during its early days. By the second of the Ten Commandments delivered to Moses by God, Christians were not to worship idols. The replicable multitude of images in the likeness of Christ was considered a sin because holiness was singular. As St. Augustine of Hippo wrote, images had no place in divinity because they pretended and deceived. In addition, biblical stories struck fear against idolatry and the worship of images. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (figure 5), as depicted in the Catacombs of Pricilla) were three Hebrew men thrown into a furnace and burnt to horrible deaths because they refused to worship the golden image of a king. To avoid this scrutiny and sin, Medieval art was born. Artists, or rather craftsmen because God was deemed the only creator, favored abstracted and stylized figures. It was not until the late 8th century that realistic imagery restarted and developed towards the Renaissance, which pushed the current for European painting for the next few hundred years.

Figure 5: Fiery Furnace, 400 CE, Unknown Artist


Scientifically, a painting or photograph can never be the subject it represents. However, illusionism has proven itself to endure against the test of time. I suppose Christians eventually decided images were not against their religion because they saw them as necessary – images provide us with a vision, a foundation for beliefs, concepts, and spirituality. Though less emphasized in the art world today, illusionism remains an indispensable form of expression.

Works cited

"Camera Degli Sposi." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 18 Mar. 2008, Accessed 19 Dec. 2021.

"Illusionism (art)." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 21 Mar. 2008, Accessed 19 Dec. 2021.

"Pygmalion." Encyclopedia Britannica, Accessed 19 Dec. 2021.

Ross, Nancy. "Khan Academy." Khan Academy | Free Online Courses, Lessons & Practice, Accessed 19 Dec. 2021.

"Theory of Forms." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 4 June 2005, Accessed 19 Dec. 2021.

"The Treachery of Images." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, 19 Nov. 2021, Accessed 19 Dec. 2021.

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