Citizen Spectator

Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America

Wendy Bellion
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  • Book Info
    Citizen Spectator
    Book Description:

    In this richly illustrated study, the first book-length exploration of illusionistic art in the early United States, Wendy Bellion investigates Americans' experiences with material forms of visual deception and argues that encounters with illusory art shaped their understanding of knowledge, representation, and subjectivity between 1790 and 1825. Focusing on the work of the well-known Peale family and their Philadelphia Museum, as well as other Philadelphians, Bellion explores the range of illusions encountered in public spaces, from trompe l'oeil paintings and drawings at art exhibitions to ephemeral displays of phantasmagoria, "Invisible Ladies," and other spectacles of deception.Bellion reconstructs the elite and vernacular sites where such art and objects appeared and argues that early national exhibitions doubled as spaces of citizen formation. Within a post-Revolutionary culture troubled by the social and political consequences of deception, keen perception signified able citizenship. Setting illusions into dialogue with Enlightenment cultures of science, print, politics, and the senses,Citizen Spectatordemonstrates that pictorial and optical illusions functioned to cultivate but also to confound discernment. Bellion reveals the equivocal nature of illusion during the early republic, mapping its changing forms and functions, and uncovers surprising links between early American art, culture, and citizenship.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0043-7
    Subjects: Art & Art History, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vi-x)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xiii-xx)
    (pp. 1-22)

    In American art history, Charles Willson Peale’sArtist in His Museumtraditionally marks the end of an era (Plate 1). Huge in scale and dense with imagery, the painting offers both an autobiographical summary of Peale’s talents and a calculated visualization of his renowned Philadelphia Museum. Surrounded by emblems of his achievements in art and science—a palette and brushes, excavated bones, a dead turkey draped over a taxidermy box—the elderly Peale lifts a heavy red curtain, his illuminated head bowed slightly in greeting and his palm extended in welcome. The curtain frames a view of the organized and...

    (pp. 23-62)

    Isaiah Lukens was suspicious. It was the winter of 1813, and Charles Redheffer, a millwright in suburban Philadelphia, had recently unveiled his invention of a perpetual motion machine. Such a discovery promised a technological marvel. The prospect of a self-renewing energy source was as much a hopeful desire of earlier centuries as it is today, and hence it was little surprise that Philadelphia’s scientific and mechanic communities greeted the machine with wonder and excitement when it was exhibited at a house in Germantown, some ten miles outside the city. Eager to learn whether Redheffer’s discovery could be replicated, a local...

    (pp. 63-112)

    One of the tallest tales in American art history begins with a visit to the Peale Museum. Sometime during the late 1790s, George Washington called at the museum with the intent of viewing waxwork sculptures of several American Indian figures. As Charles Willson Peale escorted Washington to the gallery featuring the waxworks, the president was stopped in his tracks by a trompe l’oeil picture. “The painting represented my elder brother,” Peale’s son Rembrandt later recalled in the literary journal theCrayon,“with palette on hand, as stepping up a stairway, and a younger brother looking down.” “I observed that Washington,...

    (pp. 113-170)

    Crossing into Philadelphia by foot across the Schuylkill River toll bridge, eighteen-year-old Arthur Mervyn encountered a world that confounded his senses. Raised on a farm in rural Pennsylvania, some forty-five miles to the south, Mervyn was a newcomer in search of work as a mechanic’s apprentice.

    By the time he found his way to the city’s main thoroughfare of Market Street,

    Night had fallen, and a triple row of lamps presented a spectacle enchanting and new. My personal cares were, for a time, lost in the tumultuous sensations with which I was now engrossed. I had never visited the city...

    (pp. None)
    (pp. 171-230)

    In 1808, as William Birch was preparing to publish hisCountry Seats of America,a writing master named Samuel Lewis made an unusual donation to the Peale Museum:

    Two frames of Cards, Checks and various other papers. One of the frames containt theOriginals—the otherImitations,mostly by the Pen, executed by Samuel Lewis and by him presented to the Museum.

    Lewis’s description suggests a set of nearly identical objects: a frame of “Originals,” containing an arrangement of miscellaneous papers, and a matching frame of pictorial “Imitations,” rendered “mostly by the Pen.” An extant watercolor and ink drawing now...

    (pp. 231-282)

    On May 10, 1800, readers of the CharlestonCity Gazetteopened their newspapers to learn that an invisible woman had been discovered in Paris. “You are undoubtedly not yet acquainted with the extraordinary experiment which is publicly displayed in No. 40, in the street of the Priests of St. Germaine l’Auxetrois [sic],” began a letter translated from theGazette de France.Entering a chamber of this dwelling, the Abbé Roch-Ambroise Cucurron Sicard—a philosophe who directed a renowned institute for deaf-mutes—had encountered an inconspicuous glass chest surrounded by a railing and suspended by chains from the ceiling. “Transparent and...

    (pp. 283-328)

    In the spring of 1820, James Earle put a stunning picture on display in his Philadelphia gallery. Painted by the French artist François-Marius Granet and entitledThe Choir of the Capuchin Church in Rome(Plate 6), the picture had been shown to acclaim at the Paris Salon one year earlier. The canvas was huge—more than six feet tall by five feet wide—and it immersed Earle’s audience in a foreign place and subject: the private chapel of Santa Maria della Concezione, a friary on the Piazza Barberini, where monks gathered for blessing in advance of High Mass. The setting...

    (pp. 329-340)

    It seems only fitting to conclude a book about the possibilities and limits of discernment with a picture that cannot be seen. Charles Willson Peale’sStaircase Self-Portrait,painted in 1823, marked the artist’s greatest achievement of trompe l’oeil illusionism to date. Upon its completion, it easily rivaledThe Artist in His Museumin terms of scale, content, and sheer autobiographical bravado. But unlike the latter picture—one of the most visible images in the canon of American art history—theStaircase Self-Portraitremains unknown. The painting passed out of view during the early 1850s, presumed destroyed by fire. Fortunately, a...

  14. Index
    (pp. 341-351)