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Beautiful Deceptions

European Aesthetics, the Early American Novel, and Illusionist Art
Philipp Schweighauser

BUY Cloth · 264 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813939032 · $45.00 · Sep 2016
BUY Ebook · 264 pp. · ISBN 9780813939049 · $45.00 · Sep 2016

The art of the early republic abounds in representations of deception: the villains of Gothic novels deceive their victims with visual and acoustic tricks; the ordinary citizens of picaresque novels are hoodwinked by quacks and illiterate but shrewd adventurers; and innocent sentimental heroines fall for their seducers' eloquently voiced half-truths and lies. Yet, as Philipp Schweighauser points out in Beautiful Deceptions, deception happens not only within these novels but also through them. The fictions of Charles Brockden Brown, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Susanna Rowson, Hannah Webster Foster, Tabitha Gilman Tenney, and Royall Tyler invent worlds that do not exist. Similarly, Charles Willson Peale's and Raphaelle Peale's trompe l'oeil paintings trick spectators into mistaking them for the real thing, and Patience Wright's wax sculptures deceive (and disturb) viewers.

Beautiful Deceptions examines how these and other artists of the era at times acknowledge art's dues to other social realms—religion, morality, politics—but at other times insist on artists' right to deceive their audiences, thus gesturing toward a more modern, autonomous notion of art that was only beginning to emerge in the eighteenth century. Building on Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten's definition of aesthetics as "the science of sensuous cognition" and the writings of early European aestheticians including Kant, Schiller, Hume, and Burke, Schweighauser supplements the dominant political readings of deception in early American studies with an aesthetic perspective. Schweighauser argues that deception in and through early American art constitutes a comment on eighteenth-century debates concerning the nature and function of art as much as it responds to shifts in social and political organization.


Schweighauser interprets motifs of deception and illusion in early American fiction and visual art as indices of the political transformation of the young republic from premodern to modern values. His interpretations of key novels by Brackenridge, Rowson, Brown, Tyler, and Tenney as well as artworks by Charles Willson Peale, Raphaelle Peale, and Patience Wright enrich our understanding of early national culture.

John Carlos Rowe, University of Southern California, author of, University of Southern California, author of The New American Studies

Beautiful Deceptions is an enthralling book and a masterful narrative on how modernization and European aesthetic theory are played out in the artistic realm of postrevolutionary America. Offering a rich deposit of transnational readings in the arts and literature, the book stands as an authoritative and invaluable history of Western art, magisterial in its scope and immensely readable. Here is a writer of distinction with a deep theoretical underpinning—the fullest, richest, and most compelling study of the subject.

Oliver Scheiding,, coeditor of, Transnational American Studies Institute, coeditor of A Peculiar Mixture: German-Language Cultures and Identities in Eighteenth-Century North America

In its contextualization of novels and visual artworks within continental aesthetics... Beautiful Deceptions is an invaluable contribution to the field and invites scholars to consider more deeply the aesthetic turn as it applies to the case of the early Republic.

William & Mary Quarterly

Beautiful Deceptions strikes that rare balancebetween presenting penetrating analyses and enthralling historiography. It offers complexity of subject matter, knowledgeable moderation between multipletheoretical perspectives, themes, and subjects as well as high-caliber criticism.

Amerikastudien / American Studies

About the Author(s): 

Philipp Schweighauser, Professor of American and General Literatures at the University of Basel, is the author of The Noises of American Literature, 1890–1985: Toward a History of Literary Acoustics.

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