Season of Glass, 1981
Cover Photo & Design by Yoko Ono (Japanese, b. 1933)
Produced by Geffen Records (American, Est. 1980)
Phonograph Record, 12 x 10 inches
© 2021 Yoko Ono

NEW YORK—As many Northeasterners know, there are a thousand reasons to visit New England in the summertime. Let’s make that one thousand and one this year, with the recent opening of the “Eyesight & Insight: Lens on American Art” exhibit at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt. The unique exhibit, looking at America’s history of creative response to perceptions of vision, opened May 15 and runs until Oct. 16. There’s also an online component to the exhibit, for those who don’t have Vermont in their summer travel itineraries. (Heck, I’d go to Vermont just to visit the Ben and Jerry’s factory experience in Waterbury.)

The exhibit surveys more than 200 years of art and technological innovation, and marks “the first major museum exhibition and scholarly publication to consider the myriad roles of eyeglasses and optical technologies in the history of American art,” according to the Shelburne Museum.

Here’s a little background on this exhibit and the museum, which was founded by Electra Havemeyer Webb in 1947. The exhibit is on display in the Colgate Gallery of the Museum’s Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education.

H. L. Adams Optician’s Trade Sign, date unknown. Painted iron, 10½ x 30 x 1¼ inches.
Unidentified maker
Collection of Shelburne Museum, Gift of Roger Wentworth.
Photography by Andy Duback
The Eyesight & Insight: Lens on American Art exhibit “invites new insights into the ways American artists have negotiated issues related to eyesight from the 18th to the 21st centuries,” the museum noted. The exhibition features a selection of items drawn from Shelburne Museum’s permanent collection as well as significant loans from private collectors, public institutions and galleries.

The featured artists are Tseng Kwong Chi, George Cope, Charles Willson Peale, Howardena Pindell and Yoko Ono, among others.

The exhibit, which includes four “chapters,” builds upon the work of art historian John Wilmerding, who put together “Lens on American Art: The Depiction and Role of Eyeglasses,” which surveys more than 200 years of American fine and folk art. It also highlights 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.

California Artist, 1982
Robert Arneson (American, 1930–92)
Stoneware with glazes, 68¼ x 27½ x 20¼ inches.
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of the Modern Art Council
© 2021 Estate of Robert Arneson
Licensed by VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), N.Y.
Photography by Ben Blackwell

Wilmerding’s text offers new viewpoints and perspectives from which to consider these objects and themes, the museum noted.

In what the museum calls, “Chapter One,” the exhibit drives home the idea that eyeglasses were available to relatively few consumers in 18th- and early 19th-century North America. And they 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.

Chapter Two of the exhibit provides context on the way that during the 19th century advances in printing technologies quickly made newspapers, magazines and books more affordable to many American consumers. Publishers used enlarged or decorative moveable type to grab viewers’ attention, highlighting merchandise, events or news via creatively formatted texts on the printed page.

“With this new sea of printed verbiage, sight became the primary, favored sense, and the ability to clearly read was rendered even more important for everyday people navigating their surroundings,” the museum said.

Magic Glasses, 1891. Oil on canvas, 14 x 10 inches.
Edwin Romanzo Elmer (American, 1850–1923)
Collection of Shelburne Museum, Museum purchase, acquired from Richard Gipson. 
Photography by Bruce Schwarz
The Chapter Three segment, labeled as “Seeing Identity,” noted that throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries eyewear has become quotidian and ubiquitous. Eyewear serves many ends from correcting and protecting vision to a deliberate expression of fashion and identity. Spectacles have, therefore, come to shape and inform our impressions of each other and ourselves.

In this chapter, modern and contemporary artists incorporate eyewear into their artwork as a tool for investigating personality, identification, and selfhood. Connecting the nine renowned artists and their multimedia self-portraits, portraits of other artists, and still lifes are their thoughtful incorporations of glasses.

In Chapter Four, “Spectacles at Shelburne Museum,” viewers are led to turn their vision inward. It features four talented, local multidisciplinary artists who experience Shelburne Museum and its varied gardens, grounds and collections through their creative points of view.

The artists were supplied with Snapchat’s Spectacles 3 for a day, and recorded 10-second videos taken directly from their line of sight. The artists who created this online portion of the exhibit are: environmental artist Brian Collier and his twin sons, Alex and Max; singer-songwriter Myra Flynn and her daughter, Avalon; puppeteer Sarah Frechette; and sculpture and installation artist Lydia Kern.

The Shelburne Museum calls itself an “unparalleled and unique experience of American history, art, and design.” The museum was set up to allow visitors “the pleasure of discovery and exploration,” and it includes 39 distinct structures on 45 acres.

The Shelburne is located at 6000 Shelburne Road (Route 7), Shelburne, Vt., and the telephone number is (802) 985-3346. Museum hours are: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, plus Monday holidays. Admission is $25, $23 for those over 65, $14 ages 13-17, $12 ages 5-12; $15 for students; $15 and $8 for Vermonters.

Also of note, the museum is designed to allow visitors the pleasure of discovery and exploration, and it includes 39 distinct structures on 45 acres, each filled with beautiful, fascinating and whimsical objects.