Cubism, Trompe l’Oeil, and Juan Gris

A trompe l'oeil painting next to a Picasso cubist painting


I enjoyed a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art last week, and one of the shows I was looking forward to seeing was “Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition,” which compared these two artistic styles. I’ve long been a fan of cubist art, and was expecting to be wowed by cubist paintings by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who were the primary pioneers of this style. But I came away from the show thinking that Juan Gris was in fact the standout star of this show. Perhaps this is because I’m very familiar with Picasso’s and Braque’s cubist works, having seen many of them reproduced in art books many times as well as in this and other museums in the past. And while I’m familiar with the work of Juan Gris, the paintings included in this show were either new to me or simply stood out as something fresh and different from the Picassos and Braques that I love.

Here’s a pair of Juan Gris cubist paintings from the show: below left, “Violin and Engraving,” 1913, and below right, “Bottle and Fruit Dish,” 1916.

Juan Gris cubist paintings
Cubist paintings by Juan Gris, seen in the Cubism and the Trompe l’Oeil Tradition exhibition at the Met.

If I can better explain why these appealed to me, one of the things that seemed fresh and different was Gris’ expanded use of color. Picasso and Braque often stayed in a range of earth tones, so the use of blue by Gris (above left) and other bold colors, such as red, yellow and green (seen in other works not shown here), really made his works pop. The Met actually has a very in-depth analysis of Juan Gris in the context of cubism and this exhibition, check out their coverage of him here.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved seeing the Picassos and Braques, and to a lesser-extent, the trompe l’oeil paintings, which – to me – seemed more like comparison points in this exhibition for how the cubist artists were radically changing a more-traditional still life style. This next pairing helps explain what I mean: at left is “Still Life with Violin, Ewer, and Bouquet of Flowers,” 1657, by J.S. Bernard, and at right is “Still Life with Compote and Glass,” 1914-15, by Pablo Picasso. The Bernard painting is stunning, I love the folds and shadows of the oriental rug covering the table and the exact details and lighting of the various objects in this still life. But then one can take a look at Picasso doing the same thing – as far as painting objects on a table – but he’s distorting the objects, breaking them up and reassembling them in an abstracted form, and flattening out the sense of space.

A trompe l'oeil painting next to a Picasso cubist painting
Seeing a trompe l’oeil still life by J.S. Bernand alongside a cubist still life by Pablo Picasso. Seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The exhibition is up through this coming Sunday, January 22, 2023, so if you get a chance to catch it on one of its last days, I’d highly suggest it. There’s so much more to the show than what I covered here, but hopefully I provided an introduction that can lead to further investigation. You can also get information on planning a visit to the Met here.

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