- Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America
Suspended in the act of ascending a staircase, two boys gaze out from Charles Willson Peale’s Staircase Group, the canvas reproduced on the cover of Wendy Bellion’s Citizen Spectator. Painted in 1795, this trompe l’oeil of Peale’s sons Raphael and Titian Ramsay (his other children received equally illustrious names, including Rembrandt, Rubens, and Angelica Kauffman) staged an illusionistic deception of such mimetic prowess that George Washington was rumored to have been duped. Displayed in a doorway-like frame with a real wooden step below the canvas, Rembrandt Peale claimed that upon seeing it, Washington “bowed politely to the painted figures, which he afterwards acknowledged he thought were living persons” (qtd. in Bellion 63).
Although she dismisses this encounter as a myth, Bellion’s larger point about the cultural importance of illusionistic media in early national America is astute. Proliferating in the years after the Revolution, pictorial and perceptual deceptions—including trompe l’oeil pictures, public demonstrations of spectacular optical instruments, and exhibitions of an Invisible Lady who conversed with and gazed at audiences—challenged viewer discernment, engendering both delight and unease about visual representation and informing debates about republican political representation. Revolutionary political discourses equated good vision and keen discernment with the ability to spot political deceit in the practice of republican citizenship, since only “sharp eyes could detect traitors, flush out loyalists, and cut through political machinations” (15). Setting Peale’s painting within a larger illusionistic material landscape centered in Philadelphia, Bellion sheds new light on such canonical artworks while locating optical play within narratives of republican subjectivity and its emphasis on transparency. In this commendably interdisciplinary study, she demonstrates that in this period when “senses were politicized as agents of knowledge and action,” illusionistic exhibitions became “spaces of citizen formation” where spectators engaged in “the practice and performance of discernment” (5). Optical illusions both reified the political significance of vision and exposed the epistemological uncertainty of sensorial perception through their propensity to unsettlingly deceive.
Bellion’s first chapter introduces the range of urban optical recreations, including trompe l’oeil, camera obscuras, solar microscopes, peepshows, zograscopes, [End Page 459] magic lanterns, and phantasmagoria, providing a contextual framework for the rest of the book. The politics of seeing drew upon Enlightenment Common Sense philosophy, which identified empirical sensibility as the basis of judgment; if the discerning eye was necessary for the performance of republican citizenship to detect misrepresentation, the eye fooled by illusion was “a serious threat to a republic founded on ideals of trust and transparency” (30). This diversity of optical instruments exercising active spectatorship leads Bellion to question Jonathan Crary’s influential reading of the camera obscura as the dominant apparatus and mode of passive visuality in the eighteenth century; the situation in early America, she writes, “resists such a singular and neat interpretation” (59).
The remaining five chapters function as interdependent essays on different components of this illusionistic visual culture. In her impressive second chapter, Bellion focuses on the exhibition room as a space for articulating republican identities through her examination of the Columbianum, the nation’s first collective art exhibition. Staged in the Pennsylvania State House in 1795—literally next door to Congress Hall, where at that moment the Senate sat in closed sessions debating the terms of the controversial Jay Treaty—Bellion juxtaposes this invitation to look with the refusal of spectatorship, revealing the anxieties about political opacity undergirding the exhibition. From its origin, the Columbianum was plagued by division: Should the academy claim itself as a national institution like London’s Royal Academy? Or, as Peale and others asserted, did this betray an antirepublican impulse that usurped states’ rights to artistic and institutional autonomy? The controversy thus revived federalist and antifederalist Constitutional debates and manipulated political rhetoric about transparency and popular sovereignty surrounding the Jay Treaty. The Staircase Group, exhibited at the Columbianum within this context of...