When philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1837 that “Our Age is Ocular,” he offered a succinct assessment of antebellum America’s cultural, commercial, and physiological preoccupation with sight. In the early nineteenth century, the American city’s visual culture was manifest in pamphlets, newspapers, painting exhibitions, and spectacular entertainments; businesses promoted their wares to consumers on the move with broadsides, posters, and signboards; and advances in ophthalmological sciences linked the mechanics of vision to the physiological functions of the human body. Within this crowded visual field, sight circulated as a metaphor, as a physiological process, and as a commercial commodity. This talk analyzes a wide selection of objects and practices that demonstrate this preoccupation with ocular culture and accurate vision: from the surgical techniques of ophthalmologists to the business of opticians, from the typography used by job printers and urban sign painters to the explosion of print in public spaces, and from the fiction of Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville to the genre paintings of Richard Caton Woodville and Francis Edmonds.
Peter John Brownlee is Curator at the Terra Foundation for American Art, where his recent projects include the exhibitions, Atelier 17 and Printmaking in Brazil and the United States, 1900-1950, co-organized with the Museu de Arte Contemporânea da Universidade de São Paulo (2019) and Pathways to Modernism: American Art, 1865-1945 organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, the Terra Foundation for American Art, and the Shanghai Museum (2018). Brownlee was co-editor of the recently published Conversations with the Collection: A Terra Foundation Collection Handbook. His book, The Commerce of Vision: Optical Culture and Perception in Antebellum America, was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in October 2018.
Organised by Professor David Peters Corbett (The Courtauld)