- · vol. 3 · no. 1 · October 2002

man with bow

Wendy Bellion is an assistant professor of art history at Rutgers University. In 2003, she will begin an NEH fellowship at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, where she will be writing a book about trompe l'oeil illusionism in the early republic.



"Two hundred years before the advent of computer technologies, Americans were already escaping into virtual reality."

Object Lessons
Pleasing Deceptions
Wendy Bellion

Part I | II

Francis Hopkinson was puzzled. On a summer evening in 1784, Hopkinson, a noted Philadelphia writer and statesman, seated himself before his front door and stared at a street lamp one hundred yards away. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a silk handkerchief, stretched it gently between his hands, and raised it to his face. The light from the distant lamp shined through the material, magnifying the threads. Hopkinson smiled with satisfaction, for he had anticipated this effect. Casually, he then began shifting the handkerchief from right to left and back again—and his expression instantly soured. Dark bars had unexpectedly appeared before his eyes and remained immobile despite the movement of the material. Perplexed by this illusion, Hopkinson sought an explanation from the astronomer David Rittenhouse, a fellow Philadelphian. "To account for this phenomenon exceeds my skill in optics," Hopkinson admitted. "I shall be much obliged by a solution on philosophical principles."

Rittenhouse acknowledged that his friend was onto something interesting. "The experiment," he responded, "is much more curious than one would at first imagine. For the object we see is not the web of the handkerchief magnified, but something very different . . ." Indeed, he continued, the answer resided in Newtonian physics: when Hopkinson held the textile up to the street lamp, the material inflected the light rays in a manner that made the threads appear thicker and the dark bars immobile. That, anyway, was the explanation in a nutshell; Rittenhouse's full analysis spanned eight pages of optical theory. Lest his friend be put off by the scientific verbosity, Rittenhouse concluded by encouraging Hopkinson's curiosity. By conducting everyday research into the nature of optics, he wrote, "new and interesting discoveries" could be made "respecting the properties of this wonderful substance, light, which animates all nature in the eyes of man, and perhaps, above all things, disposes him to acknowledge the Creator's bounty." One small step for science; one giant step for the hankie.

The experiment performed by Hopkinson and Rittenhouse was unique, but their interest in fooling the eye was widely shared in 1784. Visual illusions were the stuff of scientific inquiry, philosophical speculation, and popular intrigue in late-eighteenth-century America, particularly within Philadelphia's thriving intellectual communities. And encounters with objects far stranger than silk handkerchiefs were par for the course. Camera obscuras, magic lanterns, telescopic tubes, magnifiers, zograscopes, magic mirrors, penetrating perspectives, divination boxes, and optical philosophical machines: collectively known as "pleasing deceptions," these oddly-named instruments contributed to a culture of optical illusionism that interested a broad range of viewers in the United States as well as Europe. Stepping behind the doors of early national parlors, bookstores, optical shops, taverns, theaters, and museum galleries, we find a society captivated by optical instruments, virtual images, and phantasmatic projections.

Vision and visual deception were among the great preoccupations of eighteenth-century philosophy. Enlightenment models of learning held that knowledge was received through the senses. The mind was a tabula rasa, asserted the British writer John Locke, a clean slate awaiting the imprint of sensory data. And therein resided a problem: the senses were not always trustworthy informants. The ears and nose occasionally misinterpreted sounds and smells; the hands and tongue sometimes erred in judging sensation and taste. But the eyes, as thinkers from Descartes to Kant emphasized, were the most suspect of all. On the frontlines of perception, vision was susceptible to deceptions of light, color, shadow, magnitude, atmosphere, and distance. An "Anecdote of a Remarkable Deceptio Visus," published in the Columbian Magazine in 1786, presented a case in point: traveling through the Sahara desert, an explorer was confounded by the apparent proximity of the pyramids, which appeared to loom within reach despite being miles away. Similarly, when Charles Willson Peale, a renowned Philadelphia portraitist and museum proprietor, sailed aboard a sloop from Manhattan to West Point in 1801, he was puzzled by the "stupendious [sic] mountains" rising above the Hudson River: "the blue cast shewed [sic] their distance, yet their magnitude always deceived the eye and we always thought them much nearer to us than they really were."

The problem of deception was social as well as epistemological. Shell games and card tricks, curative potions, and alchemical transformations: the specter of dissimulation, of the senses intentionally fooled, deeply troubled a world in which knowledge was meant to be acquired through observation. The cast of types suspected of employing deceptive strategies for personal gain was diverse. Confidence men, forgers, counterfeiters, magicians, artists, demagogues—even jugglers, ventriloquists, and dancing masters—were often named as agents of social disorder. Catholics and Jesuits came under attack as purveyors of "priestcraft" and smoke-and-mirrors ritual. (Indeed, the most enduring emblem of deceit was religious in nature: the devil himself in the disguise of the serpent.) Gamesters were also easy targets. Card sharps and gamblers were associated with the egregious greed of financial speculation and the suspect value of paper currency, which Thomas Jefferson once called "legerdemain tricks upon paper."

Incidents of deception, whether actual or imagined, naturally aroused anxiety. But deception, as the art historian Barbara Maria Stafford has emphasized, was also an inevitable aspect of the Age of Reason. Like yin and yang, philosophes and magicians formed two sides of the same coin. The social threat of charlatanism even gave rise to a new breed of scientists—"natural philosophers"—who sought to combat the world of sneaks and shams by exposing the secrets of visual illusion in the pages of optical treatises. William Hooper epitomized the type. In 1774, Hooper published Rational Recreations, a four-volume compendium of scientific experiments for the layperson that would undergo numerous reprintings. Hooper declared at the outset of his book that optical toys could hone visual perception and, consequently, prime social vigilance. Delivering a backhanded compliment to his audience, he predicted that the reader would "unavoidably acquire a knowledge of his own ignorance; and by finding the fallacy of what he thought most certain, the evidence of his senses, he will learn to determine with caution on the seeming convictions of the mind, and divest himself of those prepossessions from whence so many of the evils of life proceed." At the same time, however, Hooper ably stoked the very intrigue with magic and invisibility that probably led many readers to pick up his book in the first place: Rational Recreations featured dozens of experiments that promised ocular enigma, such as "The Enchanted Palace," "The Penetrating Perspectives," and "The Boundless Gallery."

Fig. 1. J. Faxley, Jr. and C. Golbrecht, "Optics: Camera Obscuras," from Abraham Rees, The Cyclopedia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature (Philadelphia, 1805-22), vol. 4, plate 3. Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

Hooper's twofold appeal to rationality and fantasy underscores a central paradox of his occupation: the line separating dishonest swindlers from scientific demonstrators was far from absolute, and the latter, like the tricksters against whom they operated, were often motivated by commercial interests. In addition to revealing the hidden workings of illusionistic devices and instructing readers in do-it-yourself gadgetry, optical treatises were occasionally bound together with catalogues selling optical, mathematical, and "philosophical" instruments—shorthand descriptions for a variety of devices enlisted in the service of scientific experimentalism. Benjamin Martin, an inventor and prolific writer who ran a shop at "the sign of Hadley's Quadrant and Visual Glasses" in London's bustling Fleet Street, was among the first to issue a lengthy catalogue of the objects in his stockroom. Martin's wares included ordinary telescopes and microscopes plus objects prized for their illusionistic properties. The camera obscura, or "dark chamber," was a staple of Martin's business (fig. 1). Fitted with lenses that projected rays of light into box-like spaces, wherein images of the external world materialized, such cameras were employed by both artists and amateur spectators for drawing and viewing natural landscapes. Martin also sold magic lanterns, which projected ghostly figures onto walls or clouds of smoke, as well as convex and concave glasses, mirrors that curved and distended proportions. By 1800, cameras, lanterns, and glasses were routine fare in optical catalogues. More exotic were the "instruments of recreation or amusement" that W. and S. Jones marketed in 1801. In addition to "magic painters" and "communicative mirrors," boxes that distorted parts of pictures inserted within, customers were enticed by a "diagonal opera glass," which enabled spectators to spy on their neighbors while appearing to stare directly forward.

Fig. 2. Perspective glass or "zograscope," c. 1780-1800, glass, mahogany with inlay, brass and ivory, 27 1/2 x 12 1/2 in. Courtesy of Winterthur Museum.

Among the many kinds of pleasing deceptions listed within optical catalogues, few enjoyed the popularity of the "optical diagonal machine," also known as a "zograscope" or "perspective glass" (fig. 2). Zograscopes usually featured a large, round magnifying glass set within a vertical, wooden frame. A rectangular mirror was hinged from the upper rear edge of the device. The instruments were used to study "perspective views": mass-produced, colored prints that depicted cityscapes, seaports, monuments, festivals, or architectural interiors (fig. 3). When the perspective view was placed backwards on a table behind the base of the frame, the image was duplicated in the mirror positioned at an angle above. The mirror reversed the image and reflected it through the magnifying glass, which enlarged and exaggerated the print's perspectival lines. Peering through the glass, then, the spectator witnessed a most remarkable illusion: the flat print upon the table was transformed into a three-dimensional space that seemed to project and recede before one's eyes. Two hundred years before the advent of computer technologies, Americans were already escaping into virtual reality.

Vue De Boston
Fig. 3. François Xavier Habermann, Vue de Boston, c. 1776, engraving with hand coloring, 10 x 15 1/2 in. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

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