Having been a regular visitor to the Shelburne Museum since the mid-1980s, it did not surprise me that on its 75th anniversary, the Museum’s focus show would be one called “Eyesight and Insight: Lens on American Art.” Over the years, the Museum has stayed true to the founder Electra Havemeyer Webb’s vision and at the same time adapted that vision to the rapidly changing world that diversity, technology and social/political interaction have brought to the art world.
“Eyesight and Insight,” curated by Katie Wood Kirchhoff and Carolyn Bauer, covers art, artifacts and curiosities. It does so via paintings, prints and photographs by artists from Peale to Eakins to Duane Michaels and Cindy Sherman. The subject is the eyeglass – that lens through which we see the world, both as a physical phenomenon and as a way of perceiving and interpreting what we see. More specifically, this exhibit is about the eyeglass wearer and how glasses define the portrait sitter’s personality, profession, social standing, personal style, and in contemporary portraits, the subject’s ‘cool factor.’ John Wilmerding, author of the accompanying catalogue, “Lens on American Art: The Depiction and Role of Eyeglasses,” describes the function of the eyeglass as correction, amplification and clarity, but also distortion.
Wilmerding’s definition had me considering this process of seeing and interpreting, redefining, adjusting, reclassifying, fine-tuning as so much more than an oculist’s prescription. And, in light of recent events — the war in Ukraine, the Capitol Insurrection, the shooting massacres — I considered how much ‘vision’ is embedded in the very language we use in the discourse on events that will create the history of our tomorrows. How often have we turned on or clicked on a news link to find someone saying, “I don’t see it that way” (disagreement), or “I’ll believe it when I see it” (doubt) or “From my vantage point, two million people attended,” (poor counting skills)?