top of page

Trompe l'oeil

Musselman's expert competency in illustration, composition, and art history contributed to his most demanding style - Trompe l'Oeil. Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, Musselman would spend many of his free hours visting Bay Area museums. He was fascinated and most appreciative of the work of William Michael Harnett (1848 - 1892), and specifically the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum's "After the Hunt". A contemporary of Harnett's - John Frederick Peto (1854 - 1907) - also has work in the collection of the de Young Museum.

Harnett - After the Hunt

During Musselman's Bay Area residency, Harnett and Peto were first identified by San Francisco Chronicle art critic Alfred Frankenstein. Musselman became interested in the trompe l'oeil style as early as 1937, but no doubt due to the broader interest created by the finds of Frankenstein, Musselman produced his first significant series of paintings in this style in 1954. One such painting, "Widmung", is part of the Oakland Art Museum collection, now renamed Oakland Museum of California.

The following text is extracted from Musselman's October 1967 exhibition brochure from his one-man trompe l'oeil show at the Fresno Arts Center. This is written in Musselman's own voice.

The trompe l'oeil, literally "deceive the eye," is a French term applied to realist paintings in which objects are depicted with such extraordinary realism that they produce an optical illusion.

The first recorded efforts at trompe l'oeil, according to legend, was by an Ionian artist of the 5th century B.C, named Zcuxis, who was reported to have painted a bunch of grapes so realistically that birds pecked at the wall on which they were painted. The Romans used the trompe l'oeil technique in depicting an untidy floor in their dining rooms by incorporating the appearance of bits of table scraps in the mosaic pavement. In the centuries that followed artists such as Veronese and the Baroque painters incorporated a form of illusionism in their wall decorations. It wasn't until the 17th century, however, that trompe l'oeil really came into its own with easel painting. This style of painting continued in vogue in Europe through the 18th century.

Early in the 19th century in America the realist technique was evidenced in the paintings of Raphaelle Peale. In the late1800's, William Harnett, influenced by Peale and later by European paintings, became a leading exponent of trompe I'oeil in America, although many of his paintings were more akin to the Dutch Still-Life tradition. Other painters such as John Frederick Peto, John Haberic, and a few of their followers carried on the trompe l'oeil style into the early part of the 20th century.

With a few exceptions, it was to be another 50 years before artists once again turned to this style. In the 1950's artists in various parts of the country - Kenneth Davies of Connecticut, Joseph Crilly of Pennsylvania and Aaron Bohrod of Wisconsin, to name a few - began exhibiting paintings with trompe l'oeil overtones.

In 1937, Darwin Mussclman became interested in trompe l'oeil painting and did some experimenting, although it wasn't until 1954 that he returned to this precisionist technique and produced a series of works which brought him national recognition. "Widmung," the first one of this period, was awarded honors in the Western Painters Annual at the Oakland Art Museum in 1955, and was later chosen as one of 50 paintings from throughout the United States to be represented in a National Exhibition at the Butler Art Institute in Youngstown, Ohio. The painting is now in the permanent collection of the Oakland Art Museum.

In 1956 Musselman, with three other artists from the San Francisco region, were invited to present a four-man exhibition at the Oakland Art Museum entitled "Bay Area Realists." In the years that followed he produced only a relatively few realist paintings in addition to his other work.

Early in 1966 Musselrnan decided to paint trompe l'oeil and realist paintings exclusively until enough were accumulated for a comprehensive exhibit. Aided by a sabbatical leave from teaching at Fresno State College in the Spring of 1967, Musselman has been able to complete over forty paintings, most of which are being exhibited for the first time in the Fresno Arts Center in October, 1967.


Paintings by Darwin Musselman have been represented in major

competitive and invitational exhibitions in the west and in traveling

exhibits throughout the United States and are in numerous private and public collections.


Musselman is a member of the American Watercolor Society,

the California National Water Color Society, and the San Francisco

Art Institute. He is listed in "Who's Who in American Art," "Who's

Who in the West," and "Dictionary of International Biography."

[Images shown: Harnett - After the Hunt, Musselman - Studio Door, Musselman - Watchful Eyes, Musselman - Pig with Pink Ribbon, and detail of Pig with Pink Ribbon.]

bottom of page