- Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America by Wendy Bellion
This magisterial book explores the objects and environments that shaped vision and citizenship in early America. From magic lantern shows to solar microscopes, trompe l’oeil paintings to printed views of Philadelphia, Wendy Bellion considers a wide range of cultural productions: some extant, others now lost; some attached to well-known names (most often Charles Willson Peale and his talented progeny), others to more obscure figures; some thick with art historical mythology, others rarely considered by art historians at all. These illusionistic objects—with their multisensory demands and deceptions—challenged perception and provided the opportunity for spectators to practice discernment.
What is a spectator in Bellion’s terms? The author uses the word to describe the audience that encountered and experienced the artworks or, more precisely, the “pictorial and optical deceptions” that serve as the book’s central focus (19). Whereas a work of art might conjure a detached viewer, the “spectator” is meant to imply a more engaged participant, and one of the significant strengths of the study is to insist on the fundamentally bodily aspects of perception. Deception becomes another key term. Bellion argues that the very process of being deceived, as well as becoming “undeceived,” when encountering a visual illusion produced self-aware citizens capable of recognizing social and political deceit. The ability to judge true from false, reality from artifice, may have been practiced in exhibition halls but was put to work outside those walls—on busy urban streets, in crowded marketplaces, and in the tense atmosphere of the state-house—at a time of anxiety over such issues as political subterfuge and counterfeit currency.
Examining the period roughly from 1790 through 1830, Bellion focuses on Philadelphia as the center of illusionistic enterprise in the United States as well as the city where post-Revolutionary negotiations over political power most prominently played out. The city was, as Bellion asserts, “a laboratory for looking” (8). This sense of the “virtual” world of Philadelphia [End Page 583] is deftly created by an opening chapter which considers magic lantern shows, phantasmagorias, cosmoramas, and other optical exhibitions that projected spectators into foreign landscapes and that themselves became the subjects of sharp critique in prints which satirized the ignorant spectator who could not recognize the deception in front of his or her own eyes. Such a diversity of exhibitions and installations mobilized the body in various ways that counter the influential argument made by Jonathan Crary in Techniques of the Observer (1990) that the camera obscura was the dominant optical instrument of the era and generated a model of passive visual consumption. Bellion’s book is acutely attuned to the physical spaces of illusion, their diverse material conditions, and the resolutely haptic qualities of these “optical” spectacles.
Every chapter except for the first centers around one object, each of which illuminates a different set of representational and material questions. Charles Willson Peale’s Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle and Titian Ramsay Peale) of 1795 was shown in the country’s first art exhibition at the Pennsylvania State House where a space used for political deliberations was transformed into a place of aesthetic display. Peale’s site-specific trompe l’oeil painting features his two sons ascending the stairs, the frame of the picture doubling as the frame of the door, a single wooden step inviting a misreading of the flat canvas as recessional space, a ticket to Peale’s Museum placed on the next step as if waiting to be picked up by its slightly curled corner. As the tall tale goes, the work fooled the exhibition’s most famous visitor, George Washington, who supposedly bowed to the painted Peale boys while passing by. Bellion uses the picture’s installation and afterlife to think about the political ramifications of the kind of sustained, critical looking that the work demanded as well as the elder Peale’s foundational role in creating institutions in which such perceptual skills could be tested...