Go to the U of M home page


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Spectral Illusions, Spiritualism, and the Limits of Vision: Francis Edmonds' The Speculator

Associate curator Peter John Brownlee from the Terra Foundation of Art will be lecturing on "Spectral Illusions, Spiritualism, and the Limits of Vision: Francis Edmonds' The Speculator" on Thursday, Nov. 8th at 4pm in Room 1210 Heller Hall.

In 1852, banker and painter Francis Edmonds completed The Speculator, a composition begun over a decade earlier. Edmonds first sketched ideas for this picture in the wake of the Panic of 1837, an economic breakdown resulting from the expansion then sudden retraction of paper currency in place of specie that facilitated rampant speculation in land and real estate. Throughout the 1840s and 50s, the circulation of paper money animated a lively discourse that likened banknotes to evanescent traces, even ghosts, of real value. Across the cultural landscape, however, paper was the central medium for exchange, perennially before the eyes of a populace increasingly reliant on the transmission of printed information. Consumed in great quantities, print had become a source of ocular impairment for those who worked in the clerical trades as well as for readers at large. Herman Melville's forlorn copyist, Bartleby, first introduced a year after Edmonds' painting, was one such victim.
But paper also provided a stage for experimentation in the emerging field of physiological optics, which investigated the eyes' functions and malfunctions as constituent components of "modern" vision. The eyes, as natural philosopher Sir David Brewster pointed out, acted as sentinels between the "worlds of matter and spirit," leading some to investigate ocular spectra and other illusions within the context of spiritualism, a highly popular mid-century movement premised on communication with the departed. In fact, the year after Edmonds completed his painting, his brother, the powerful Democratic judge John Worth Edmonds, published a major treatise on the subject. Though articulated in the purportedly straightforward manner of antebellum genre painting, The Speculator meditates on the subjective nature of eyesight and the ambiguities of vision, a theme that preoccupies Melville's 1852 novel, Pierre. This paper, the final chapter of a book manuscript in progress, argues that Edmonds' painting discloses the overlapping ways in which paper money economics, subjective vision, and spiritualism came to define modern conceptions of eyesight in a period of rapid, even reckless, economic development.