Critical accounts of kitsch that have been prompted by Clement Greenberg’s 1939 theorisation of avant-garde art bear more than a passing resemblance to the nineteenth-century critical reception of trompe l’oeil painting. Each of these critiques either accuse kitsch or trompe l’oeil artefacts of being both instigators and disseminators of a debased reality—a reality connected to the first waves of industrialised culture. This article examines the resemblances between these criticisms of kitsch and trompe l’oeil, especially in terms of what they reveal about the formalist-modernist conceptualisation of reality. By reviewing the literature that positions trompe l’oeil, photography and kitsch as superficially realistic modes of representation, the article aims to shed light on the discursive relations that produced a particular cultural conception of ‘reality’. The implications of this approach have been well rehearsed in postmodern and post-structuralist accounts of mass culture, but the present discussion takes a different route by suggesting that a similar spirit of revision could be applied to artefacts that were not mass produced. This proves to be the case particularly where, as with nineteenth-century trompe l’oeil paintings, such artefacts have also been derided as cultural forms.