Illuminating the history of creative response to perceptions of vision, Eyesight & Insight: Lens on American Art invites new insights into the ways American artists have negotiated issues related to eyesight. Building on art historian John Wilmerding’s recent research in his publication Lens on American Art: The Role and Depiction of Eyeglasses, this online exhibition surveys more than 200 years of American art, scientific innovation, and design. The exhibition’s four sections explore themes ranging from 18th-century optical technologies to the social and historical connotations of eyeglasses in portraiture from the 19th century to the present.

“Early Optics in American Art,” expands on recent scholarship regarding early optics in American painting; iconic paintings by members of the Peale family, Thomas Eakins, and Edwin Romanzo Elmer illuminate the opportunities and questions that early optical experiments and ways of seeing brought to Americans. “Newspaper Vision,” employs artworks by Mary Cassatt, William Sidney Mount, Richard Caton Woodville, and other 19th-century painters, as well as printed materials and movable type from Shelburne Museum’s collection, to explore how the explosion of affordable printing during the 1800s shaped Americans’ need to see clearly. “Seeing Identity” features the multimedia art of renowned modern and contemporary artists—such as Jasper Johns, Carrie Mae Weems, and Cindy Sherman—who incorporate eyewear into their work as a tool for investigating personality, identification, and selfhood.  The final section of the project, “Spectacles at Shelburne Museum,” features newly commissioned short videos taken from the point of view of four local multidisciplinary artists: environmental artist Brian Collier and his twin sons Alex and Max; singer-songwriter Myra Flynn and her daughter Avalon; puppeteer Sarah Frechette; and sculptor and installation artist Lydia Kern. These shorts explore and experience Shelburne Museum and its rich and varied gardens, buildings, and collections through their eyes and creative perspectives.

This online exhibition is the precursor to an exhibition at the Museum that will be on view from May 14 to October 16, 2022.


Early Optics in American Art



Newspaper Vision



Seeing Identity



Spectacles at Shelburne Museum



Lens on American Art: The Role and Depiction of Eyeglasses by John Wilmerding


A reflection of American art’s most iconic portraits that feature eyeglasses, and their significance to the artists—from Grant Wood to Alex Katz—through the lens of renowned art historian John Wilmerding.