Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America by Wendy Bellion (review)
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Illusion, Art, Deception, Visual perception

Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America. By Wendy Bellion. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. Pp. 351. Cloth, $45.00.)

From the trompe l’oeil paintings of Charles Willson Peale to P. T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid, commercial illusions meant more than entertainment to nineteenth-century Americans. As James Cook and Michael Leja have demonstrated, these playful exercises in deception helped Americans confront the more serious financial and social frauds of the age. In focusing her discerning gaze on the ‘‘optical culture of pleasure, play and deceit’’ of early national Philadelphia, Wendy Bellion reveals another important use for commercial illusions: the formation of ‘‘citizen spectators,’’ vigilant for political impostures that might threaten the new republic (4).

Metaphors of vision dominated political rhetoric during and after the Revolution. Just as Patriot pamphleteers urged the public to keep a sharp eye out for closet Loyalists, so Federalists and anti-Federalists accused one another of plotting to deceive the public. Bellion seamlessly weaves contemporary political rhetoric into insightful chapter-length analyses of sensory illusions such as Peale’s famous Staircase Group and the Invisible Lady. Collectively, these objects asserted and tested the connections between citizenship and visual perception. Installed on the second floor of the Pennsylvania State House, the Staircase Group, for instance, tricked countless viewers (Washington among them, apocryphally) into mistaking its painted subjects for fellow flesh-and-blood patrons. [End Page 483]

Yet Peale’s true intent, Bellion shows, was not deception, but undeception. By demonstrating the unreliability of appearances, the Staircase Group alerted viewers to the secrecy with which the Senate was deliberating in adjacent chambers over the controversial Jay Treaty. A later chapter offers a similar interpretation of the productions of local drawing master, mapmaker, and government clerk Samuel Lewis, exhibited at Peale’s Museum. Exhibiting samples of his cartographic and clerical work alongside trompe l’oeil letter rack depictions, Lewis encouraged viewers to look skeptically upon all forms of representation, including those official verbal and visual instruments upon which republican institutions rested.

Like the aesthetic theorists of the eighteenth century, modern art historians have often dismissed illusionistic works as mere novelties. But by alerting citizens of the new nation to the importance of looking carefully, artistic deceptions suggested that spectatorship was both a political right and even a duty. Even so, the right to look was far from universal, as a penultimate chapter on the popular Invisible Lady illusion suggests. Exhibited in vernacular spaces, the exhibition encouraged gallery visitors to converse with the disembodied voice of an unseen woman. By inviting male viewers to inspect and intellectually dismantle the mechanism concealing the unseen-yet-gendered speaker, the illusion ‘‘styled discernment as a faculty to be attained at the expense of women’s vision’’ (280).

The outlier among the objects studied by Bellion is Birch’s Views. In keeping with republican ideals of transparency, most contemporary urban views avoided an unseemly excess of detail and used strict linear perspective, a task facilitated, in Philadelphia’s case, by the city’s grid plan. The first significant collection of prints of Philadelphia, the apparently straightforward Views might seem an unlikely subject for a case study of illusion. Yet by disordering perspective and including such quotidian features as bollards and meat hooks, its prints served ‘‘as a record of how the city was looked at rather than as a document of what the city looked like’’ (120). How the spectator looked was more than a matter of his aesthetic sensibility. Several of the Views depicted the homes of prominent local investors, some successful and some bankrupt; Bellion reads the play of perspective in these plates as commentary on the perspicacity or short-sightedness of their owners. Depictions of local marketplaces similarly drew a connection between speculation in its commercial and perceptual senses, ‘‘literaliz[ing] the abstractions of a market economy and represent[ing] sight as a contested medium of commerce’’ (166).

As this passage might suggest, Citizen Spectator sometimes ventures [End Page 484] beyond the territory of republican political culture. When it does so, this otherwise excellent study sometimes fails to fully articulate the...