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Las Meninas and the Illusion of Illusionism

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There is a popular view on depiction which holds that convincingly realistic paintings depict their subjects through evoking in the spectator the illusion of seeing these very subjects face to face. There is, as it were, an exact 'match' between the visual experience of seeing something in a picture and the corresponding visual experience one would entertain if one were to stand in front of the real thing. This view, which we shall call 'illusionism', supports the widespread assumption that some kinds of pictures -- notably post-Renaissance perspective paintings -- provide the correct, 'natural' way to depict physical space because they capture the way the visual system enables one to see the world. The most notable defence of illusionism has been offered by Ernst Gombrich. In his Art and Illusion, Gombrich (1960) argues that the development of Western art consists in a series of discoveries about the nature of visual perception that eventually lead to pictorial techniques that are able to elicit illusionary visual experiences on part of the spectator and thus reach the perfection of naturalistic representation.

Document Type: Research Article

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Publication date: January 1, 2008


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