- Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America by Wendy Bellion
Wendy Bellion's project in her finely crafted book, Citizen Spectator:Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America, is to show how pictorial and optical illusions, when considered alongside Enlightenment theories of sensory perception and discernment, shaped notions of American citizenship, representation, and subjectivity. To investigate practices of seeing, Bellion delves into the production and reception of trompe l'oeil paintings, optical devices, and popular spectacles of deception created between 1780 and 1830. With a focus on Philadelphia, Bellion considers how illusionistic objects could be politicized and marshaled to help Americans hone their skills of looking. Bellion calls this period the beginning of a "pronounced ideological equation between keen vision and patriotism" in which the ability to discern truth from falsehood in [End Page 455] the material landscape became a sign of able citizenship (15). Yet, illusionistic objects are rarely stable and straightforward; they can at once reify, contradict, and parody contemporary ideologies of political looking. In exploring how "a cultural dialectic of deceit and discernment" played out in the material culture of illusion, Bellion deftly teases apart the layers of political and social meaning hidden within her chosen objects and demonstrates how illusion can make us self-aware spectators—as much then as now (5).
Bellion builds her six chapters like case studies, around an individual or group of related objects. She presents canonical paintings alongside prints, maps, trade cards, architectural and perspectival drawings, optical instruments, and the illustrations and textual pages of books in a material culture approach that dissolves barriers between fine arts and the vernacular and allows her to demonstrate how issues of vision emerged across a broad visual and material landscape. Bellion employs a diverse array of visual evidence and methodologies. Although she draws extensively on the field of visual culture studies, with its interest in charting the practices of seeing and theories of sight, she also engages with literary studies and embraces contextualization, now essential in social and political history. Her interdisciplinary approach offers a model for integrating the pictorial arts within a framework of material and print culture and illustrates the ways in which our understanding of canonical paintings may be enhanced and even challenged when viewed through new lenses.
In her opening chapter, Bellion introduces readers to Philadelphia's "culture of visual curiosity" and shows how an awareness of, and interest in, visual perception was pervasive in American society by the mid-eighteenth century. Informed by the Common Sense philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment, Americans believed in an individual's ability to train the senses—especially vision—to perceive truth or uncover deception. Natural philosophers, museum proprietors, artists, and itinerant showmen alike used the tools (lecture courses, publications, trompe l'oeil paintings, museum installations of optic devices, and theatrical demonstrations of perceptual tricks) to enlighten their fellow citizens on the laws of physics and the possibilities of sight. Through a range of optical devices, such as magic lanterns and optical boxes, Americans engaged in many different ways of looking and thereby practiced discernment. Bellion argues, convincingly, that the diversity of these devices and the different viewing experiences they enabled meant that "no single modality of vision prevailed" in early America. Individuals who attended these optical exhibitions or read about them in newspapers "learned to look in multiple and sometimes contradictory ways" (56). [End Page 456]
With this overview of visual theory, Bellion lays the groundwork to examine how various ways of looking influenced artistic production and were implicated in the political process. In chapters 2 and 4, Bellion uses trompe l'oeil pictures, Charles Willson Peale's The Staircase Group, and Samuel Lewis's less-known watercolor and ink drawing A Deception, to demonstrate different ways artists could model discernment. For Peale, the lesson came in the allegories and political references hidden in plain sight: in his sons' poses, emblems, and attributes, and in the symbolic act of displaying the painting...