Tricky Artwork

Anamorphic Painting of Adam and Eve

By Oliver Tostmann, Susan Morse Hilles Curator of European Art

Anamorphic Painting of Adam and Eve, 17th- or early 18th-century
Unknown, Italian, Anamorphic Painting of Adam and Eve, 17th- or early 18th-century, Oil on canvas, The Ella Gallup Sumner and Mary Catlin Sumner Collection Fund, 1997.12.1

Nobody likes to be deceived. Art, however, seems to be an exception to this rule. For thousands of years optical illusions have fascinated art lovers. Countless artists have employed various techniques to achieve surprising deceptive and illusionary effects which became popular during the Renaissance period in Europe. During that time, artists frequently experimented with optics and perspective to explore depth in painting, sculpture, and architecture. Simultaneously, they discovered the absurd effects of distorting the third dimension, often with the help of mirrors and other optical devices. Instead of reproducing forms to scale, they created projections that appear warped and can only return back to normal when viewed from a specific perspective. This creative technique is called anamorphosis, a term derived from the Greek prefix ana‑, meaning “back” or “again”, and the word morphe, meaning “shape” or “form”. While the use of anamorphism can be found in art from all over the world, one of the best-known examples in European art is Hans Holbein’s impressive painting The Ambassador’s (1533) with its floating large skull at the bottom.

Left: Hans Holbein the Younger, Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve (‘The Ambassadors’), 1533. Oil on oak. The National Gallery, London; Right: Detail of the skull when viewed from the correct angle.

The Wadsworth possesses a rare and truly wonderful Anamorphic Painting of Adam and Eve. While we know little about the origins of the picture, scholars date it to ca. 1700 and attribute the work to a yet unknown Italian artist. When viewing this large-scale painting from the front, all elements appear blurry and stretched from one end to the other. But when viewed through two peep holes on either side of the ornate frame, the figures come together and we are able to distinguish Adam and Eve with the apple sitting in the Garden of Eden. The couple is framed by a large, still unidentified, male face on the top and a large human skull on the bottom. A text written in Latin also becomes legible:

(I am the way and the truth and the lifeWho believes in me shall never die,Be mindful of death.)

Anamorphic Painting of Adam and Eve, side view
Anamorphic Painting of Adam and Eve, side view

This message, partially taken from John 14:6, is closely related to Jesus Christ. Associated with the image of the temptation and fall of man, it is clearly intended as a warning against sin, a reminder of death, and an admonition to faith as a source of eternal life in the hereafter. Anamorphic images, veiled in symbolic meanings and conveying significant spiritual messages, were not meant to be obvious; rather, they were intended to inspire reflection and meditation, so that the discovery of the message should lead to intellectual fulfillment. As the Dutch poet Jacob Cats wrote in 1632, “Experience teaches us that many things appear to best advantage when not seen completely, but somehow veiled and in dark shadow.”

The Anamorphic Painting of Adam and Eve, presented in our Cabinet of Art and Curiosity alongside other works that incite marvel and reflection, reminds us of the close intersections of art, science, and the fantastical during the Renaissance and Baroque eras. As instructive as this combination was to contemporaneous viewers, it continues to be inspiring and enchanting to us today.