Seeing America: Vision and Visual Culture in the United States

With the influx of English and Dutch settlers in colonial America in the 17th century, early American culture was strongly influenced by Empirical philosophy and the optical sciences. These trends encouraged Americans to value the perception of everyday information and the precise recording of visual fact. Over the course of the 19th century, technical advancements in the visual fidelity of photography and lithography fueled enthusiasm for the veracity of the image. Americans increasingly came to view art as a means to visually document and make legible complex historical events and social change.

This impulse towards documentation and perceptual truth gave rise to a realist strain in American visual culture. Yet, it also led to the notion of a direct honest vision in amateur painting, folk art and 20th century forms of modernist abstraction. In addition, egalitarian attitudes towards visual experience were promoted through democratic, affordable mass art forms like photography and prints. Such populist ideals are reflected in a range of commonplace subjects that include landscapes, expeditionary scenes, industry and Regionalist themes of Midwestern life.   

While this exhibition examines an American faith in the empirical value of artistic representation, it also seeks to raise critical questions around this issue. How was the realist status of art and photography used to promote the truth value of nationalist myths like Manifest Destiny? What persuasive role did images play in idealizing or masking more complex and divisive social realities within the United States? One such reality was the spreading growth of modern industry, which threatened traditional views of the agrarian purity of American nature. Despite belief in a democratic, collective American vision, the identity and visual experience of African Americans, Native Americans, women and other minorities were often excluded. When depicted, these groups were most often the subject of a white imperialist, male gaze. As the power and influence of our visual culture expands in the 21st century, these same social, political and racial questions associated with American ways of seeing remain significant and relevant.


This exhibition was curated by students in Prof. Gilbert's Introduction to Art Museum Studies Course, Winter term 2018. Leah McWhorter (Knox Class of 2018), Zuri Peterson (Class of 2020), and Meredith Beck (Class of 2020) designed the exhibition. Laurie Sauer and Rebecca Yowler in Seymour Library provided technical and research support for the exhibition. Special thanks go to Carley Robison and Ruth Holmes in the Knox College Special Collections and Archives for their support in organizing the exhibition and for providing photographs of artworks. Thanks also goes to Peter Bailley in the Office of Communications for assisting with photography and to Tuesday Cetin for loaning artworks from the collection of the Galesburg Civic Art Center.