FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Kristen Levesque
Eyesight & Insight: Lens on American Art on view this Summer at Shelburne Museum
SHELBURNE, Vt. (April 20, 2022) Eyesight & Insight: Lens on American Art marks the first major museum exhibition considering the myriad roles of eyeglasses and optical technologies in American art. Eyesight & Insight: Lens on American Art will be on view at Shelburne Museum May 15 through October 16, 2022.
Eyesight & Insight: Lens on American Art features a rich selection of items drawn from Shelburne Museum’s collection as well as significant loans from private collectors, public institutions, and galleries. The exhibition illuminates a history of creative responses to perceptions of vision, inviting new insights into the ways American artists have negotiated issues related to sight. Building on art historian John Wilmerding’s recent research in his publication Lens on American Art: The Role and Depiction of Eyeglasses, the exhibition surveys more than 200 years of American art, scientific innovation, and design. Themes explored range from 18th-century optical technologies to the social and historical connotations of eyeglasses in portraiture from the 19th century to the present.
Early 19th-century portraits by Ammi Phillips and members of the Peale family illuminate some of the opportunities and questions that early optical experiments and ways of seeing brought to those who could afford to correct their vision. Folk art trade signs and tin whimsies reveal the ubiquity and increased availability of glasses during the 19th century. Viewing devices like the magic lantern and the stereoscope transported Americans from their homes to natural wonders like Niagara Falls or spectacles like World’s Fairs. Intimately-scaled genre paintings by Richard Caton Woodville and tromp l’oeil still lifes by George Cope and Edwin Romanzo Elmer invited period viewers to look closely, discerning truths from fiction in the space of the canvas.
Often incorporating eyewear as a tool for symbolizing and illustrating disguise, identity, or elucidating humor, the 20th and 21st– century works featured in the exhibition provide a provocative foil and contemporary counterpart to the earlier artwork. Renowned artists Duane Michals and William Wegman humorously play with narrative and perception of scale with lenses and glasses in their photography. Sunglasses—which are often associated with fashion, anonymity, and emulating “coolness” within American popular culture—are utilized in works by photographer Tseng Kwong Chi as well as celebrated painter Jamie Wyeth to inspire conversations related to cultural identity.
Howardena Pindell’s seminal video Free, White, and 21 is of special value to this exhibition, provoking important, timely, and at times difficult discussions surrounding racism and identity. Her incorporation of sunglasses is one of the pivotal props necessary for assuming another character in this powerful, largely autobiographical artwork that recalls the artist’s experiences of racism, bias, and sexism as a Black woman living in America and working in the arts world. Viewers are encouraged to engage in dialogue to provide insight and reflect on Pindell’s influential video.
The accompanying publication by art historian John Wilmerding, Lens on American Art: The Depiction and Role of Eyeglasses, surveys more than two centuries of American fine and folk art. Highlighting themes ranging from 18th-century optical technologies to the social and historical connotations of eyeglasses during the 19th and 20th centuries to 21st-century design, Wilmerding’s text offers new viewpoints and perspectives from which to consider these objects and themes.
Image Caption: Unidentified maker, H. L. Adams Optician’s Trade Sign, date unknown. Painted iron, 10 1/2 x 30 x 1 1/4in. Collection of Shelburne Museum, gift of Roger Wentworth. 1964-64. Photography by Andy Duback.
Hi-res images available HERE.
About Shelburne Museum
Founded in 1947 by trailblazing folk art collector Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888–1960), Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, is the largest art and history museum in northern New England and Vermont’s foremost public resource for visual art and material culture. The Museum’s 45-acre campus is comprised of 39 buildings including the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education and Webb Gallery featuring important American paintings by Andrew Wyeth, Winslow Homer, Grandma Moses, John Singleton Copley and many more. For more information, please visit shelburnemuseum.org.