Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America

Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America

by Wendy Bellion
Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America

Citizen Spectator: Art, Illusion, and Visual Perception in Early National America

by Wendy Bellion


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In this richly illustrated study, the first book-length exploration of illusionistic art in the early United States, Wendy Bellion investigates Americans' experiences with material forms of visual deception and argues that encounters with illusory art shaped their understanding of knowledge, representation, and subjectivity between 1790 and 1825. Focusing on the work of the well-known Peale family and their Philadelphia Museum, as well as other Philadelphians, Bellion explores the range of illusions encountered in public spaces, from trompe l'oeil paintings and drawings at art exhibitions to ephemeral displays of phantasmagoria, "Invisible Ladies," and other spectacles of deception.

Bellion reconstructs the elite and vernacular sites where such art and objects appeared and argues that early national exhibitions doubled as spaces of citizen formation. Within a post-Revolutionary culture troubled by the social and political consequences of deception, keen perception signified able citizenship. Setting illusions into dialogue with Enlightenment cultures of science, print, politics, and the senses, Citizen Spectator demonstrates that pictorial and optical illusions functioned to cultivate but also to confound discernment. Bellion reveals the equivocal nature of illusion during the early republic, mapping its changing forms and functions, and uncovers surprising links between early American art, culture, and citizenship.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780807838907
Publisher: Omohundro Institute and UNC Press
Publication date: 12/01/2012
Series: Published by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 388
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Wendy Bellion is associate professor of art history at the University of Delaware.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

Citizen Spectator is a wonderful book—clever, learned, insightful, and surprising. Bellion writes brilliantly about art, illusion, optics, and perception, leading readers through the rich visual worlds of early national Philadelphia and into the tumultuous politics of the new American nation.—Ann Fabian, Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey

Eye-opening, original, and provocative, Citizen Spectator recasts early national citizenship as a politicization of the senses. A fascination for optical illusions in art and science tested Americans' ability to discern authenticity from deception. Bellion proves just how important that test was in the early republic. She reminds us of its importance still.—Joseph Roach, Yale University

Bellion shows that deceptive illusions were not mere diversions for the citizens of Philadelphia circa 1800 but were embedded in the Enlightenment pursuit of rationality and anxieties about republican politics. These insights bring a fascinating array of artifacts into focus.—Michael Leja, University of Pennsylvania

Citizen Spectator lifts a curtain to expose the aesthetic, economic, and political spaces—from museums to markets, the street to the statehouse—where Americans practiced a politics of visual discernment. Absorbing and arresting as an illusionistic painting, Bellion's book brilliantly reveals how new media challenged inherited ideologies and provides novel horizons and vanishing points for the history of American art, culture, and politics.—Eric Slauter, University of Chicago

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