Available to relatively few consumers in 18th- and early 19th-century North America, eyeglasses are rarely pictured in visual culture from the period. Notable exceptions include several likenesses of statesman and inventor Benjamin Franklin, as well as portraits made by and of the Peale family of Philadelphia. The fascination Franklin and the Peales maintained for the science of sight found its way into popular culture via the manufacture of devices like magic lanterns and stereoscopes, entertaining and novel ways to view pictures of far-off locations, folklore, the natural world, and more in the comfort of the home. As viewing aids became less costly and more ubiquitous in America during the late 19th century, the intricacies of vision fascinated artists like Edwin Romanzo Elmer and Thomas Eakins who illuminated new scientific advances and opportunities in the space of the canvas.

David Martin (Scottish, 1736–98)
Benjamin Franklin, 1767
Oil on canvas, 49 ½ x 39 ½ in.
Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Gift of Maria McKean Allen and Phebe Warren Downes through the bequest of their mother, Elizabeth Wharton McKean, 1943.16.1

Benjamin Franklin has long been credited with the development of lenses that allow users to see objects both nearby and at a distance. In a 1784 letter to his “Dear Old Friend” George Whatley, Franklin remarked that he was “happy in the invention of Double Spectacles, which serving for distant objects as well as near ones, make my Eyes as useful to me as ever they were: If all the other Defects and Infirmities were as easily and Cheaply remedied, it would be worth while [sic] for Friends to live a good deal longer…” “Double spectacles”—today better known as bifocals—of the sort that fascinated Franklin are commonplace in the 21st century, helping scores of individuals see the world more clearly.

Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741–1827)
Self-Portrait with Spectacles, ca. 1804
Oil on canvas, mounted on wood, 26 3/16 x 22 5/16 in.
Courtesy of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Henry D. Gilpin Fund, 1939.18

Aside from Benjamin Franklin, there are very few portraits of individuals wearing glasses in North America from the time before and during the American Revolution. Like Franklin, Charles Willson Peale was a polymath interested in the technological advancements of his era, and was sometimes variously described as inventor, archaeologist, museum founder, naturalist, watch-maker, statesman, autobiographer, and unconventional portraitist. Peale completed nearly a dozen self-portraits during his lifetime, yet his Self-Portrait with Spectacles is the only one to prominently feature the painter wearing glasses. The faint horizontal lines in the lenses here indicate that they are likely bifocals of the sort developed by Franklin. Further, the position of these glasses on Peale’s forehead indicates that the artist has been hard at work, but has taken a break—and pushed his glasses up off of his face—to look outward and better connect with the viewer.

Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741–1827)
James Peale, 1822
Oil on canvas, 24 ½ x 36 in.
Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase with funds from Dexter M. Ferry, Jr., 50.58
Licensed by Bridgeman Images

With the development of brighter, more effective artificial illumination in the early 19th century, Americans found more time in their schedules for activities previously available only during daylight hours. Baltimore, Maryland was the first American city with gas streetlights, serviced by Peale’s Gas Light Company beginning in early 1817. These advancements were not confined to the public realm. This remarkable painting of Charles Willson Peale’s brother James is one of the earliest American paintings to depict a domestic interior scene in the artificial glow of the relatively new Argand oil lamp.

Rembrandt Peale (American, 1778–1860)
Rubens Peale with a Geranium, 1801
Oil on canvas, 28 1/8 x 24 in.
National Gallery of Art, Patrons’ Permanent Fund, 1985.59.1

Charles Willson Peale named most of his 17 children after well-known scientists and artists. While both Rubens, the subject of this portrait, and his brother Rembrandt, this portrait’s maker, were artists and museum keepers, this picture highlights another of Rubens’ lifelong interests: botany. Close study of the natural world required keen eyesight, and the two pairs of glasses visible in this portrait served two purposes. Art historian John Wilmerding has noted that the set Rubens clasps in his hands has been constructed with more oval lenses and a wider bridge; these were meant to rest low on Rubens’ nose and create a magnifying effect to help him examine botanical specimens like this geranium, reputed to be the first specimen of this exotic plant ever grown in North America. The glasses pictured on Rubens’ face, resting higher on his nose, are meant for long vision and looking out toward the world, perhaps even for gazing out at the viewer of his portrait.

Alphonse Bigot (American, b. France, ca. 1828–72)
[McAllister & Brother, opticians, 728 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia], after 1856
Engraving, 5 ¼ x 2 ½ in.
Library Company of Philadelphia, (2)1525.F.18b

This engraving was included in an album assembled by Charles A. Poulson cataloging the history, society, built environment, and political climate of Philadelphia from about 1830 to 1860. The storefront pictured is the optical shop of McAllister & Brother, located at 728 Chestnut Street. Founded in the 1790s by John McAllister, Sr., the business changed names over the years and from 1853–1865 manufactured frames and fitted them with imported lenses under the name of McAllister & Brother. Signage on the façade advertises a range of optical and viewing devices within, including mathematical instruments, microscopes, spy glasses, thermometers, and spectacles. Patrons included presidents Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson as well as several members of Charles Willson Peale’s family like Rubens Peale. A close look at the large center window on the first floor above the ground reveals a bust of another famous Philadelphian associated with the development of glasses: Benjamin Franklin.

Ernst Plank Company (Germany, 1866–1935)
Magic Lantern, date unknown
Metal, wood, and paint, 4 ½ x 4 ¼ x 2 ½ in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum, Museum purchase, 1952-121
Photography by Andy Duback

Founded in Nuremburg, Germany in 1866, the Ernst Plank Company manufactured a variety of metal toys ranging from steam locomotives to early photography equipment. One of their most successful products was a magic lantern, a kind of projector that used a light source, a lens, and an illustrated transparent glass slide to project an enlarged image onto a wall or into a space. First developed in the 17th century, these devices were widely used from the 18th to the mid-20th centuries and were eventually superseded by the slide projector. Common projections included themes such as folklore, history, science, travel, and art. Sometimes these devices were also used for a form of horror theater known as “phantasmagoria” that employed one or more magic lanterns to project visions of spirits or ghosts for intrepid audiences.




Underwood & Underwood (American, 1881–1940s)
Stereoscope, 1901–39
Metal, wood, glass, and cloth, 8 x 7 1/8 x 13 in.
Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Oprah Winfrey, 2014.312.101

Invented in the 1830s and popular as an entertainment medium from the 1850s to the 1930s, stereoscopes are viewing devices that allow a user to see two identical two-dimensional images as a single three-dimensional image. To use the device, a user would grasp the vertical, contoured handle and hold the curved, mask-like portion of the device against the forehead while gazing through the right and left lenses. A printed card with two identical images would be fit into the metal guide wires in front of the lenses. Image themes included humor, politics, science, fictional stories, and more. When the stereoscope fell out of favor in the 20th century, new devices with integrated full-color viewing cards, like the View-Master, recreated the experience for subsequent generations.

Thomas Waterman Wood (American, 1823–1903)
Reading the Scriptures, 1874
Watercolor, gouache, and graphite on paper, 14 15/16 x 10 ¾ in.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1966, 66.140

Thomas Waterman Wood’s small 1874 watercolor Reading the Scriptures presents a decidedly different perspective relative to the role of eyeglasses in daily American life during the late 19th century. The subject of this work—a solitary, literate Black man—is reminiscent of Eastman Johnson’s iconic 1863 painting The Lord is My Shepherd (Smithsonian American Art Museum). Unlike Johnson’s subject, Wood’s figure has been empowered by a pair of corrective spectacles. These glasses provided a conduit for personal agency and the freedom—both of body and soul—that only an educated populace could hope to achieve in the years following the American Civil War.

Edwin Romanzo Elmer (American, 1850–1923)
Magic Glasses, 1891
Oil on canvas, 14 x 10 in.
Collection of Shelburne Museum, Museum purchase, acquired from Richard Gipson, 1960-304.6
Photography by Bruce Schwarz

Magic Glasses, Edwin Romanzo Elmer’s only known still life in oil, is filled with illusionistic and detailed subject matter. A clear and footed celery vase (a “celery glass” in the terminology of the time) sits on a marble tabletop. Balanced precariously on the rim of the vase is a magnifying glass whose convex lens offers viewers the reflection of a winter landscape out an unseen window. While ostensibly about two varieties of glasses, this painting also hints at Elmer’s engagement with emerging photographic technologies. The double reflections in the painting are reminiscent of the camera obscura, a precursor to the modern camera. Further, the release of the Kodak camera in 1888—just three years before this picture was dated—had made photography widely available to Americans. Elmer reportedly took advantage of the new art form himself: a November 1904 exhibition review in the Greenfield Reporter noted, “Mr. Elmer makes a specialty of enlarging photographs for which he took many orders.”

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Thomas Eakins (American, 1844–1916)
Professor Henry A. Rowland, 1897
Oil on canvas, 80 ¼ x 54 in.
Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, MA, Gift of Stephen C. Clark, Esq., 1931.5

This extraordinary portrait provides tangible links between American art and the science of sight. Thomas Eakins is credited with the depiction of more individuals wearing glasses than any other American artist. This remarkable portrait presents Professor Henry A. Rowland, the founding chairman of the physics department at Johns Hopkins University, who made his name via experimenting in electricity, light, and heat, and is known for being the first person to describe the solar spectrum, thus advancing the study of spectroscopy. He holds a diffraction grating of the spectrum, a creation of his machine located in the background. The custom frame surrounding this work, carved with scientific symbols and notations provided by Rowland, further illuminates Rowland’s professional accomplishments.