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February 21, 2024
A painting of a cat and a wooden log breaking through the back of a painting.

Trompe l’oeil with a cat and a wooden log by Louis-Léopold Boilly

In certain genres or styles, some painters wish to express their talents through deception. Almost as if to say, “I’m so good I made you look twice.” Most often, this takes the form of painting something so realistic that the viewer thinks it is, in fact, real. It’s a strange yet understandable impulse to want to confuse your audience. But this is a far older impulse than people think. While illusions and other tricks in painting are often grouped under the French term trompe l’oeil (literally meaning deceives the eye), highly realistic painting like this predates the term by literal millennia, involving everything from hidden insects to fake curtains.

One of the oldest references to trompe l’oeil involves the ancient Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius. The story goes that Zeuxis created a painting of some grapes so realistic that birds came down to snatch them up. To one-up him, Parrhasius invited Zeuxis into his studio and asked him to pull a curtain aside to reveal a painting. Zeuxis, however, was surprised to find himself simply clawing at a painting of some curtains.

The French painter Louis-Léopold Boilly was the first to coin the term trompe l’oeil in painting. Previously, Boilly had been known for painting portraits and genre scenes, but around the year 1800 switched to these illusionistic paintings. These ranged from tabletops cluttered with papers, coins, and playing cards to the backs of canvases torn open to reveal various objects. Boilly also found that while this showed off his own talent, he could be incredibly playful. One example is a painting on a circular piece of marble meant to resemble a small tabletop. Boilly added several nods to a man named Pourtalès, a member of a Swiss banking family who commissioned the painting. The work includes a variety of Swiss coins, the patron’s portrait in miniature, and some papers which include Boilly’s business card.

But while Boilly was the first to use the phrase trompe l’oeil in reference to painting, he was pulling from a long tradition of illusionistic painting that European artists had been building upon since the Renaissance. However, this was normally reserved for frescoes and other forms of decorative painting rather than anything on a canvas or panel; basically to make a room seem larger than it actually is. Using foreshortening, artists could make flat ceilings appear domed, like what Andrea Pozzo achieved at the Jesuit Church in Vienna. Andrea Mantegna pulled off a similar trick in his fifteenth-century frescoes at the Ducal Palace in Mantua, accompanied by painted-on architectural features like molding and scrollwork that are prominent on the ceiling.

15th century portrait of a woman in a large, white veil

Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family

But while most Renaissance-era trompe l’oeil consisted of these frescoes and murals, it also took another form: bugs. Known as the musca depicta (from the Latin for painted fly), fifteenth- and sixteenth-century painters often hid insects like flies in their paintings. Not only was this a display of skill, but many apocryphal stories tell that, while they were apprentices, some artists put insects in their masters’ paintings as a joke. The bugs seemed so lifelike that the master would try to shoo them away only to find that it’s not real. Writers like Filarete and Vasari have told these stories about artists like Giotto and Mantegna. But while these are likely just myths, the flies and other insects are real. Many portraits have these little hidden insects, like Sebastiano del Piombo’s portrait of Cardinal Bandinello Sauli, who has a fly resting on his knee. Then there is Portrait of a Woman of the Hofer Family by an unknown portraitist who included a fly in the woman’s veil. Later on, in the seventeenth century, we start to see these flies infiltrate still-life paintings by Clara Peeters and Balthasar van der Ast.

In the seventeenth century, we start seeing trompe l’oeil on canvas as more than a fly. During this time, Dutch artists in particular were known for creating paintings that gave the appearance of three-dimensional objects. Cornelis Norbertus Gijsbrechts, for example, would create works showing items hung up on a wall partially hidden by a blue curtain drawn back against a background with the grain of unvarnished wood. But probably his simplest yet most impressive work is The Reverse of a Framed PaintingThis same style of trompe l’oeil ended up persisting for several centuries. Later examples include the paintings of the nineteenth-century Irish-born American artist William Harnett. His contemporary, Adriaen van der Spelt, also made use of curtains in his work. While mainly specializing in floral still-life paintings, Van der Spelt might be best known for one painting that includes a blue curtain suspended by a rod obscuring about a third of the flowers we’re supposed to see. It was not unusual to have curtain rods installed above paintings in your home at that time. Normally, this was so its owner could create a more dramatic reveal, or possibly because it contained a rather erotic subject. Therefore, a curtain in front of a painting would not have been that unusual for a seventeenth-century viewer, which means it would have been an even greater surprise to see the curtain is itself part of the painting.

Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes by Anthony Wachulis

To this day, trompe l’oeil continues to serve as an impressive art form. Contemporary painters like Edgar MuellerJohn Pugh, and Anthony Wachulis continue this variety of painting. Some artists like Pugh execute it on a much larger scale than his predecessors. They also tend to be publicly viewable, making illusionistic art more accessible. Others, like Wachulis, follow in the footsteps of Gijsbrechts and Harnett, creating hyperrealistic works that make it seem like, at first glance, it’s not a painting in a frame but some small trinkets in a box hanging on the wall. So whenever you see a painting that you have to look twice at, remember that there are centuries of tradition, silliness, and just a hint of ego behind it all.


Art Market in 2024


Art Market

5 Themes That Will Define the Art Market in 2024

Arun Kakar

Jan 5, 2024 7:49PM

Modern Evening Auction at Sotheby’s New York, November 2023. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Following a tricky year for the art market, 2024 begins on note of anticipation. While economic growth is forecast to slow and geopolitical tensions show no signs of abating, positive signals are surfacing—from falling inflation to the prospect of lower interest rates—and could inject the art market with a dose of much-needed confidence. It’s certainly looking like a more optimistic picture than this time last year.

Here, we share the five key themes to keep an eye on in the art market in 2024.

1. The performance of blue-chip works at auction

Contemporary Art Evening auction at Sotheby’s New York, November 2023. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

There’s no question that 2023 was a down year for the auction market. Christie’s and Sotheby’s reported a combined auction and private sales total of $14.2 billion in 2023, a 13% decrease from $16.4 billion in 2022. This slump was felt acutely at the top end of the market, where the top 100 lots at auction last year generated a little more than half the sales value compared to the year before, falling from $4.1 billion in 2022 to $2.4 billion last year.

It’s important to note that 2023 came after a bumper year of historical, record-breaking sales at auction, which partly explains the fall in numbers.

But that’s only part of the story. Another notable factor across auction sales last year was that several prominent blue-chip artists’ works—normally surefire bets under the hammer—failed to reach the low end of their presale estimates. Across New York’s blockbuster fortnight of auctions in November, for instance, works by , and  all hammered below their low targets. Auction houses also took steps to manage their sales by withdrawing some key lots—a worrying sign that demand wasn’t quite as strong as expected.

While blue-chip artworks are only a slice of the auction market, they are significant gauges of demand at the top end of the market. It will be interesting to see how and if they bounce back in 2024.

2. How positive economic forecasts could boost the art market

Despite 2023 being a year of high interest rates, stubborn inflation, and lingering uncertainty throughout the global economy, it ended on a marginally better note than many might have expected. Recessions were (mostly) avoided across developed economies, unemployment remained low, and wages continued to rise.

But 2024 carries several notes of concern. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), global economic growth is forecast to slow in 2024 to 2.9%, and the broader macroeconomic situation will remain highly volatile with conflicts, geopolitical tensions, and climate emergencies a persistent presence.

Like any global industry, the art market is susceptible to these tremors.

The good news for the economy, however, is that inflation appears to be turning a corner. The IMF tips global inflation to fall to 5.2% in 2024, compared to 6.8% in 2023 and 8.7% in 2022. In the U.S., it has fallen to as low as 3.1% (the rate from this past November). While many economists have cautioned that there is still a way to go, the signs are broadly positive. This applies to the art market, where galleries have had to shoulder a huge rise in operating costs in recent years: In Artsy’s Art Industry Trends report published last April, gallery professionals and dealers cited inflation as the most influential factor in setting artwork prices. With inflation set to slow into 2024, we can expect these price rises to soften.

It’s a similarly positive story with interest rates. Post-pandemic hikes in interest rates from central banks around the world have been broadly successful in taming inflation, and now it remains a question of when and not if rates will begin to fall. This is particularly important given the slowing growth figures mooted for the year ahead, and many economists are predicting as many as six rate cuts by the end of the year.

Low interest rates have historically been good news for the art market. The sustained period of low interest rates that followed the 2008 financial crisis led to exponential growth in the art market throughout the 2010s. It was cheaper than ever to borrow money, and a range of financialization tools made it easier to invest in art as an asset class. While interest rates are unlikely to fall to the lows of that period in 2024, it will undoubtedly be easier for buyers to borrow and transact on art purchases than it has been over the past year.

3. The artists poised for a breakout moment

Exterior view of the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia, 2022. Photo by Roberto Marossi. Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia.

Towards the end of April, art world jet-setters will descend on the floating city of Venice for the 60th Biennale, a milestone event on the contemporary art calendar that promises provocative displays and plenty of parties. This year’s edition is curated by Adriano Pedrosa—the first Latin American to take on the role—and the list of artists who will represent their countries in their national pavilions is shaping up strongly.

While the Venice Biennale is not officially a commercial event, there are plenty of galleries involved in the exhibitions throughout the Giardini and Arsenale, as well as in many pop-up shows and events around the city, and a strong collector presence. As such, the most buzzed-about artists of the Biennale often become the art market’s next darlings.

For instance, the Biennale’s main exhibition in 2022, “The Milk of Dreams,” took its name from a book of the same title by the late Surrealist artist , whose work was featured prominently in the Giardini. Less than a month after the opening of the Biennale, the artist’s auction record was broken and her work appeared four times in the top 10 sales at auction in 2022 by late women Surrealist artists.

As well as presenting names that are ripe for rediscovery, the Biennale is also sure to introduce new names and trending themes to a highly discerning and influential audience.

The Biennale is also known to amplify themes that are already gaining prominence in the art world. Take for example the U.S. pavilion, which will feature , the first Indigenous artist to represent the country in a solo presentation, and comes off the back of increased institutional attention towards Indigenous art. At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.,  curated a major survey of more than 40 Indigenous artists and was herself the subject of a solo retrospective at the Whitney in New York. Other institutions including the Hessel Museum and the Hammer Museum have also featured Indigenous artists prominently in their programs over the past year.

Indigenous artists are also being shown more prominently in galleries and gaining a foothold in the commercial art world. The auction house Phillips, for example, has just opened “New Terrains,” a selling exhibition of contemporary Native American art that features works by names including  and . The show suggests that we can expect to see Indigenous artists’ works going to auction in the year ahead.

4. How galleries will continue to bridge the physical and digital

Exterior of Pilar Corrias Gallery’s new Mayfair space. Photo by Omer Kanipak. Courtesy of Pilar Corrias Gallery.

This will be a pivotal year for the commercial gallery landscape. A bumper year in the art market as well as a favorable real estate environment in 2022 led several younger galleries to expand or enlarge their physical presence, but the picture at the beginning of 2024 looks vastly different.

Looming fears over increasingly high rental prices in art world capitals such as New York and London, amid broader worries around the commercial real estate market, make investments in new or expanded brick-and-mortar spaces riskier than they were a few years ago. This is especially true for smaller and mid-size galleries that have been disproportionately impacted over recent years by multiple COVID-induced lockdowns, economic volatility, and key artists leaving their rosters.

Gallery hotspots, such as downtown New York, endured a spate of gallery closures in the second half of 2022. But several galleries have also recently opened new outposts or are set to open new spaces soon, from ’s new London gallery that opened in October to ’s new outpost in New York.

Perhaps 2023 will be viewed as the year that a new, post-COVID normal was fully instantiated, in which the art world returned fully to the physical world but remains digitally engaged. This engagement was reflected in our 2023 reports: Artsy’s Art Collector Insights 2023 report showed that 80% of respondents purchased art online in the past 12 months, up from 76% in 2022; and according to our Art Industry Trends report, 51% of galleries reported that their online collectors are primarily new to their business.

Bridging these digital and physical strategies will be a key point for galleries to address in 2024. It will be interesting to see what approach they take.

5. The evolution of Asia’s art fair landscape

Interior view of Art Collaboration Kyoto, 2023. Photo by Moriya Yuki. Courtesy of Art Collaboration Kyoto.

If 2022 was the year that most art fairs reopened to an audience of collectors pining for post-pandemic travel, then 2023 was the year of readjustment. Predictions that the future of art fairs was in peril post-COVID were debunked: According to UBS and Art Basel’s The Art Market 2023 report, there are expected to be 377 fairs in 2024, a slight reduction from the pre-pandemic high of 408 in 2019.

For the major staples of the fair calendar, 2024 is likely to be a continuation of business as usual. For emerging art fairs, meanwhile, this looks set to be a decisive year of consolidation. This is particularly true in Asia, where art fairs have seen expeditious and substantial changes in recent years.

Later this January, Art SG will look to build on momentum around the Singaporean art market when it hosts its second edition, while in February, India Art Fair’s largest edition yet in Delhi will aim to showcase the city’s rapidly developing local art scene. This July, in Japan, the second edition of Tokyo Gendai will look to draw in more international attention; and in November, the fourth edition of Art Collaboration Kyoto will aim to capitalize on a buzzy sophomore edition, which saw attendance skyrocket from the previous year.

And nowhere in Asia is the art world buzzing more than in South Korea, where the art scene continues to thrive. Art Busan continues to expand and launched a new design-led fair, Define: Seoul, in the Korean capital last November. Frieze Seoul’s third edition will be closely watched; and a new experimental art fair, ART OnO, from Korean collector JaeMyung Noh, will be launched in Seoul this April.

The Asian market will also be bolstered further by art fair stalwarts getting back into their pre-pandemic rhythm. In November, ART021 and West Bund Art & Design returned at full scale for the first time since the pandemic in Shanghai; and this March Art Basel Hong Kong will feature 242 galleries, the same number as its 2019 edition and a 37% increase on 2023’s edition. It’s shaping up to be a big year for the continent. 

Arun Kakar
Arun Kakar is Artsy’s Art Market Editor.