This book concludes by discussing the possibilities and limits of discernment with a picture that cannot be seen. Charles Willson Peale's Staircase Self-Portrait, painted in 1823, marked the artist's greatest achievement of trompe l'oeil illusionism to date. Upon its completion, it easily rivaled The Artist in His Museum in terms of scale, content, and sheer autobiographical bravado. Unlike the latter picture—one of the most visible images in the canon of American art history—the Staircase Self-Portrait remains unknown. The painting passed out of view during the early 1850s, presumed destroyed by fire. Fortunately, a rich archive of writing about the Staircase Self-Portrait has survived, allowing us to reconstruct the creation and understand the significance of a picture otherwise lost to visibility.
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