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Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America, the title of Wendy Bellion’s impressive book, aptly captures the primary themes of her study of Federal-period American visual culture. Her concern is with demonstrating the agency of looking: how active viewing reflected political ideologies and encouraged the emergence of community and national identities in the decades following the Revolution.
Bellion casts “optical pleasure, play, and deceit” as primary characteristics of the period, “in which paintings were experienced as one among many forms of visual deception” and “illusions functioned to exercise and hone skills of looking” (4–5). Discernment in looking characterized and made perceptible the socially superior position of the viewer, while sharp vision was equated with patriotism. And the experience of seeing made an impact on the viewer, turning “exhibition rooms into spaces of citizen formation . . . where citizens learned to use their senses to tell truth from deception” (7). Thus Bellion’s philosophical and methodological perspectives are clearly aligned with current approaches to visual culture that examine a wide range of visual forms and call for analysis of historical modes of seeing, yet her work remains relatively unique.
Bellion provides a fascinating overview of the variety of optical experiences available to observers in the early republic, most located in the large capital city of Philadelphia. Early Americans were intrigued by lenses and optical instruments—convex mirrors, camera obscuras, spy glasses, microscopes, zograscopes, and so on. For popular entertainment, scientific edification, or aesthetic pleasure, people sought optical illusions in domestic and public settings. Such a diversity of technologies and engagements, Bellion argues, led to many differing, and sometimes contradictory, ways of seeing by active, embodied—not passive—viewers. Following others who have theorized imagined communities, she discusses exhibitions of optical spectacles (peep shows, magic lantern shows, automatons, phantasmagorias) as places where audiences “learned to look in multiple ways and recognize themselves as part of a viewing community” (17). Acknowledging the dearth of primary sources recording responses to viewing, Bellion gauges a sense of the experience by relying on the material qualities of the devices and the way bodies had to be positioned for seeing.
A strength of the book is Bellion’s resolute insistence on locating these visual experiences firmly within specific historic contexts, particularly her argument that the purpose and meaning of seeing in the 1780s, at the beginning of the early national period, functioned differently than during the tensions of the 1820s. She uses Charles Willson Peale’s Staircase Group (Portrait of Raphaelle and Titian Ramsay Peale) (1795; reproduced on the book’s cover) and his son Rembrandt Peale’s George Washington, Patriae Pater (ca. 1824), often called the porthole portrait, to bookend her argument about how illusion and its significance changed over the course of the period. With its trompe l’oeil effects enhanced by the (probable) addition of a real stair leading into its space, the Staircase Group encouraged belief in its three-dimensionality and at the same time rewarded more discerning viewers with assurances that their keen perceptual skills—which allowed them to spot the illusion—would protect them from deceptions. Such works fortified the ability of spectators to unmask trickery in artworks.
Bellion advances the argument that artists manipulated illusions and created works requiring engagement and discernment at a time when citizens were demanding more transparency as their new republican government was taking shape. The partisan aspects of this argument are also compelling, particularly in a political context in which both parties routinely accused the other of deception. The Democratic-Republicans thought vision was the key to seeing truth and enhanced perceptual skills were valuable in the political sphere, while Federalists “famously doubted the peoples’ ability to discern their own best interests” (81). However, Bellion may be extending this argument too far when she suggests the 1795 exhibition of the Staircase Group in the same building as the Senate, where the controversial Jay Treaty was being debated in secret, went hand-in-hand with deeper concerns over governmental obfuscation.
The Staircase Group demanded “active looking,” as Bellion describes it: “the painting challenged spectators to discern the bounds of reality and representation, testing their senses against an illusion and engaging them, through the gaze of the two boys, in a mutual exchange of observation” (101). Its pictorial deceptions demanded sustained looking that would reveal the illusion and achieve the clarity of vision demanded by republican citizenship. As Bellion argues in her chapter on the writing master and trompe l’oeil artist Samuel Lewis, the imitative aspect of the genre reinforced ideas of egalitarian sameness, and so exact reproduction was valued. Yet at the same time, the visual acumen necessary to distinguish small deviations between the image and its referent helped ease social anxieties about forgeries, counterfeits, and other deceptions.
By the end of this period, illusion functioned differently. Rembrandt Peale’s Patriae Pater, another trompe l’oeil image, required sensory absorption rather than cultivated discernment. Banking panics and political conflicts over western expansion, slavery, and sectionalism were emerging—issues that would leave deep scars on the nation—along with Millennialist predictions of the end of the world. Because of these anxieties, viewers sought artworks of nostalgia and emotional transport. Patriae Pater makes Washington seem alive (perhaps helped by Rembrandt’s reminders that he was the only painter still living who had drawn the great man from life); black cloth moves across a faux masonry frame, connecting the president’s space to the viewer’s and intensifying the sense of presence. Bellion again situates the image in the larger visual culture, comparing it to how Washington was resurrected in other media from popular prints to the phantasmagoria—terrifying performances that sought to conjure ghosts.
One of the chapters examines William and Thomas Birch’s book (1800) of Philadelphia views, which incorporated picturesque aesthetics into images of more elite areas of the city. In keeping with her focus on active looking, Bellion challenges the reader to think of these cityscapes as “artifacts of spectatorship,” in other words, “a record of how the city was looked at,” incorporating sensations as the artists moved through the city (120; emphasis in original). This theoretical position allows Bellion to attribute perspectival distortions and oddities to the artists’ subjective vision, but others might just as reasonably attribute them to lack of training and insufficient skill. Another way the Birches bring their personal vision into their images, she argues, is to incorporate their view of the growing city’s material specificity and its grid plan into the structure of their pictures, yet never overtly recognizing changes and dislocations in the urban environment.
At points in her narrative, Bellion acknowledges diversity in modes of seeing among different members of society, pointing out that, predictably, the extant sources favor historical memory of the elite white male’s vision. She attempts to rectify this with a chapter on the “Invisible Lady,” a popular series of contraptions shown in cities along the eastern seaboard that were built of interlocking tubes that created illusions of a female voice originating from within them. The Invisible Lady, while seeing all, carried on polite conversation with the viewers. Viewers were enticed to locate the source of the sound, but few could solve the puzzle. As in other chapters, Bellion is most convincing when connecting myriad aspects of visual culture to overarching republican political ideologies. With her discussion of the Invisible Lady, the author shows that the machine taught people they should not always believe their senses (thus challenging the republican belief in discernment). However, her analysis of the implications of this female voice for gendered viewing could be developed beyond her observations on social anxieties and containment of female speech.
Citizen Spectator is developed from Bellion’s meticulous research in primary sources in multiple archives. It is an important contribution to scholarship on the visual culture of the early national period, an understudied era that had an enormous though often unacknowledged impact on later American art.
Professor of Art History, Rev. J. Gerard Mears, S.J., Chair in Fine Arts, Department of Visual Arts, College of the Holy Cross