Published: September 19, 2000
Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825 to 1861
NEW YORK CITY – By the second quarter of the Nineteenth Century, New York City, already the nation’s financial center, was poised to become a “world city” on a par with London and Paris. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, which linked the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean via the Hudson River, the great port of New York became the gateway to the West, assuring the city’s commercial preeminence. Over the next 35 years, until the start of the Civil War in 1861, New York grew rapidly, becoming the “Empire City” – the largest city in the Western Hemisphere, and the nation’s center of manufacturing, culture, and the arts.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art recently opened the landmark exhibition “Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861,” which explores the visual arts in America during this time and chronicles New York’s ascendancy to the position of the nation’s primary art center and its capital of culture, a role it has claimed ever since. The presentation features some 310 works from 84 lenders in the United States and Europe.
“Through the hundreds of works that were brought together for this unprecedented exhibition, New Yorkers, as well as our visitors from around the world, will experience the moment when New York City began to perceive itself as the center of culture in America. Indeed, the city we know today, the vibrant capital of art, architecture, design, and fashion, finds its roots in this period,” commented Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum.
“Art and the Empire City” is organized thematically within a chronological framework, beginning with works that characterize New York’s status in 1825 as a small city, poised to move into a position of greater prominence. Moving through the galleries, visitors see how economic, historical, technological, demographic, and cultural forces coalesced, transforming New York into a major world city.
The first gallery begins in the year 1825, when New York City celebrated the completion of the Erie Canal and its artists conceived of the National Academy of Design, one of the nation’s first fine arts institutions. Visitors entering the exhibition encounter the imposing 1826 full-length portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette by Samuel F.B. Morse, on loan from New York’s City Hall.
The Rise of a Great City (1825-35)
Lafayette was much beloved in America for his role in the Revolutionary War. When he returned to the United States in 1824 for a lengthy national tour and to witness the opening of the Erie Canal, all of the major artists in New York vied for the opportunity to paint his portrait – the most important commission of the decade. It is significant that Morse, future master of photography and inventor of the telegraph and a founder and the first president of the National Academy of Design, as well as a champion of the movement to foster the arts in America, was awarded the commission.
Flanking Lafayette’s portrait is a pair of monumental silver presentation vases from the Metropolitan’s own collection, crafted in 1824-25 by Thomas Fletcher and Sidney Gardiner. A gift of thanks to Governor De Witt Clinton from the merchants of Pearl Street for his role in envisioning and overseeing the building of the Erie Canal, these elaborate covered vases are embellished with scenes of the canal’s construction.
In 1825, New York was still dependent on Philadelphia for silversmiths capable of such a high level of craftsmanship, but that would soon change, as a presentation coffee urn (The Detroit Institute of Arts) in the same gallery, made by Gale and Moseley of New York in 1829, makes evident.
The nascent American school of landscape painting is represented by “View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains,” a breathtaking vista over the Hudson River painted by Thomas Cole around 1827, on loan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Hand-colored engravings, aquatints, and lithographs depict New York as it was then – concentrated in lower Manhattan below 14th Street. (The renowned diarist and former mayor of New York Philip Hone was one of the first to use the term “downtown,” which was coined in this period.)
Other highlights in the gallery include works from the Metropolitan’s collection, such as William J. Bennett’s engraving “Fulton Street and Market” (1828-30), a streetscape still recognizable today, and the large-scale tripartite “New York Harbor from the Battery” (1829) by Thomas Thompson, a landmark in the history of American lithography. Thomas Horner’s early depiction of “Broadway at Canal Street” (1836), a hand-colored aquatint and etching, shows the city’s main street bustling with merchants, carriages, carts, and shoppers.
During the 1820s and 1830s, before Thomas Cole’s investigations of the American landscape became influential, portraiture dominated American painting and sculpture. The exhibition’s second gallery recreates a Nineteenth Century portrait gallery, recalling the famous Governors’ Room (then the actual New York City office of the state’s governors) in City Hall as it looked around 1825. The gallery presents painted portraits and marble busts of some of New York’s most distinguished artists, writers, and cultural leaders by New York’s most accomplished artists.
The Yale University Art gallery has lent a commanding marble bust of the painter John Trumbull by Robert Ball Hughes (modeled 1833; carved 1834-after 1840), while Trumbull’s own work is represented in the gallery by his 1792 full-length portrait of Alexander Hamilton (Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette Collection of Americana), a figure revered by New Yorkers.
Other prominent figures, such as De Witt Clinton; Andrew Jackson, who was President of the United States from 1829 to 1837; the poet and newspaper editor William Cullen Bryant; the painters Cole and Asher B. Durand; and the author Washington Irving are among the New York luminaries rendered by painters such as Durand and Morse and sculptors such as Hiram Powers and John Frazee.
Many of New York’s great public buildings of the era (most no longer extant), as well as both typical and visionary housing projects, were executed in the Grecian style. Architectural drawings of great clarity and beauty illustrate the style that dominated the period between 1825 and 1840, and are on view in the third gallery. In addition to original presentation drawings, the gallery includes selections from the masterpiece of early lithography “Views of the Public Buildings in the City of New York Correctly Drawn on Stone by A.J. Davis” (1827), printed by Anthony Imbert.
Two of the works depicted here – the Rotunda, a building in City Hall Park constructed in 1818-20 to house John Vanderlyn’s grand panorama of the gardens and the palace at Versailles, and the façade of the Branch Bank of the United States – are of particular interest because both the panorama and the façade can be seen on permanent display in the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing.
Decorative Arts, 1830-45
The fourth gallery features interior furnishings that might have been found in Grecian-style houses and decorative arts in various media dating from around 1830 to around 1845. The Brooklyn Museum of Art has lent a pair of pilasters and a mahogany door with a pedimented frame from Clarkson Lawn, a grand Grecian house built in Brooklyn in the mid-1830s.
Joseph Meeks and Sons, one of the most prolific New York cabinetmaking firms of the period, is represented by a bold mahogany-veneered pier table (circa 1835; private collection) with curvilinear supports, and also by a hand-colored broadside, a rare lithograph of enormous importance to the history of American furniture, which shows the firm’s product line in 1833.
Among the objects in silver, Baldwin Gardiner’s covered tureen on a stand (circa 1830; private collection) and a delicate basket by Marquand and Company (1833-38; The Baltimore Museum of Art), both made in New York, bear eloquent testimony to the high level of craftsmanship and design by then available in New York. An exquisite pair of Argand lamps (circa 1835; Dallas Museum of Art), probably manufactured in England, bear the mark of the New York retailer J. and I. Cox, a purveyor to the American market of lighting fixtures and other domestic and imported goods.
A rosewood armchair, couch, and six nested tables (all from private collections) were part of a large order of furniture by Duncan Phyfe that was filled in New York in 1840-41 for use at Millford Plantation in South Carolina. These works exemplify the appreciation in other parts of the country for New York style.
Refined earthenware such as a large pitcher embellished with thistles (circa 1835-50, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) that was produced in Jersey City by the American Pottery Company are remarkable for the crisply molded patterns.
New York Artists and Authors
The interrelationship between the visual arts and literature is explored in the fifth gallery, which includes such masterworks as Thomas Cole’s 1827 oil painting “Last of the Mohicans” (Wadsworth Atheneum), inspired by the eponymous James Fenimore Cooper novel, and Asher B. Durand’s 1849 iconic painting “Kindred Spirits” (The New York Public Library), a tribute to both artist Thomas Cole (who had died in 1848) and poet William Cullen Bryant. Marble busts of Cole and Bryant, both by Henry Kirke Brown, flank the painting. Robert Weir’s circa 1837 depiction of St Nicholas (The New-York Historical Society) attests to the development of Christmas as a national celebration during this period.
Connoisseurship and Collecting In New York
A measure of New York’s increasing cultural sophistication was reflected in the high quality of foreign works of art on view in public exhibitions or acquired by New Yorkers for their personal collections. The sixth gallery presents unprecedented documentation of the evolution of American taste in foreign works of art, beginning in the 1830s with an interest in such Old Master paintings as “A Grand Landscape (An Extensive Landscape with a Ruined Castle and a Village Church)” by Jacob van Ruisdael (1665-70, The National Gallery, London), which was first displayed in New York in 1830.
Over time, New Yorkers developed an appreciation for works by contemporary European artists, such as Rosa Bonheur’s 1851-53 “The Horse Fair,” which is in the Metropolitan’s permanent collection.
Works ranging from Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s painting “Four Figures on a Step” (circa 1655, The Kimbell Art Museum) to Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen’s “Ganymede and the Eagle” (1817-29, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts), to J.W.M. Turner’s renowned “Staffa, Fingal’s Cave” (1832, Yale Center for British Art) illustrate the quality and diversity of art works seen in New York before the Civil War.
Works owned by private collectors of the time, such as the 1449 “Triumph of Fame” (birth tray of Lorenzo de Medici) by Giovanni di Ser Giovanni, called Scheggia (originally in the renowned collection of Thomas J. Bryan, and now in the Metropolitan), as well as engravings after Old Masters (such as Rembrandt and Rubens) and contemporary works (by Paul Delaroche and David Wilkie) are among the other works on display in this gallery.
Crystal Palace, 1853
New York’s presence on the international stage of world culture was heralded by the 1835 “New-York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations,” the focus of another gallery. The exhibition, also known as “The New York Crystal Palace,” was housed in a grand building of cast-iron and glass. Both the structure and the exhibition itself were modeled on and intended to rival London’s Great Exhibition of 1851 (the first world’s fair).
The 1853 exposition is explored through American works that were displayed there, including the iconic “Greek Slave” (1847) by Hiram Powers, now in the collection of the Newark Museum; a rare suite of rosewood seating furniture in the Louis XIV style by Julius Dessoir, a gift in honor of the museum’s 125th anniversary in 1995, seen here for the first time; and a recently rediscovered Gothic-style carved oak bookcase (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) made by Gustave Herter, who was to become American’s premier cabinetmaker and decorator by the end of the Civil War.
Photography, the New Medium
In counterpoint to the portrait gallery at the beginning of the exhibition, the eighth gallery presents early New York daguerreotypes and salted paper prints. Photography, which was introduced to America by Samuel F.B. Morse soon after its invention in France in 1839, made portraiture available to an ever-widening audience, which ranged from illustrious Americans such as Walt Whitman and P.T. Barnum (their daguerreotype portraits are on view) to common folk such as a fireman with his hat and horn and a grocery boy with his parcel.
Almost instantaneously Americans embraced the new medium, with the result that soon there were more practicing daguerreotypists in New York City than in all of Europe. The exhibition includes works by well-known pioneers in the field, such as Mathew B. Brady, and lesser-known artists – Gabriel Harrison and Jeremiah Gurney among them – whose contributions to this art form only now are being brought to public attention.
The Great Emporium
By the 1850s, New York boasted a dazzling array of high-quality wares, both produced locally and imported from abroad, which attracted people from all over the country. For those who came to shop, Broadway was the heart of “the Great Emporium.” Works on view in this gallery suggest the panoply of luxury goods available in New York at mid-century.
Among the highlights of this gallery are a richly carved statuary mantelpiece depicting Paul and Virginia (characters from a popular French novel), commissioned by Hamilton Fish of New York (1851, Museum of the City of New York); brightly colored wallpapers; and gleaming silver, such as the covered urn (1845, Henry Clay Memorial Foundation) presented to Henry Clay by the gold and silver artisans of New York in thanks for the protective tariff of 1842, and a silver tray, pitcher, and two goblets (1856) presented by Temple Emanu-El to the Reverend Dr D. Einhorn (Congregational Emanu-El, New York).
Thanks to the artistic virtuosity of New York’s large and skilled immigrant population, the decorative arts flourished in the Empire City. For example, the production of cut and engraved glass reached an impressive level of expertise, as demonstrated by a spectacular compote made for President and Mrs Abraham Lincoln at the Long Island Flint Glass Works of Christian Dorflinger of Brooklyn, N.Y. (1861; The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
High-style furnishings include works by two of the greatest cabinetmakers working in the city in the 1850s: a resplendent carved rosewood sofa by J.H. Belter (circa 1855, Milwaukee Art Museum), and an elaborately carved rosewood étagère by Alexander Roux (circa 1855, The Metropolitan Museum of Art).
Other highlights of this gallery include a small tabletop bookcase made in 1851 (Museum of the City of New York) by Thomas Brooks of Brooklyn as a gift from the firemen of New York to the renowned soprano Jenny Lind (“The Swedish Nightingale”), whose nationwide tour was organized by the impresario P.T. Barnum, and a magnificent figured maple and rosewood reception room cabinet made circa 1860 by Gustave Herter (Victoria Mansion, Morse-Libby House, Portland, Me.).
Two ball gowns that were worn to the Prince of Wales Ball held in New York during his visit in 1860, both on loan from the Museum of the City of New York, are also on view. A display of period jewelry documented as having been made in New York includes the 1861 seed-pearl parure (necklace and a pair of bracelets) acquired from the New York jeweler Tiffany and Co. for Mary Todd Lincoln, who wore them to her husband’s inaugural ball (Library of Congress).
The Empire City
By mid-century, New York had assumed the status of “Empire City,” as the tenth gallery, displaying the large-scale 1851 map of New York City published by Matthew Dripps (Library of Congress) and city views drawn from numerous private collections and public archives attest. Frederick Law Olmsted’s presentation boards (Municipal Archives) depict proposals for Central Park, which was under development at this time. Each board juxtaposes Olmsted’s “Greensward” plan of 1857 with Mathew Brady’s photographs of the existing, somewhat barren topography, and Calvert Vaux’s lush oil sketches that convey a vision of what Central Park was to become.
Architectural drawings of churches, public buildings, the Croton Water Works, and private houses, now in a variety of styles ranging from Gothic Revival to polychromatic Venetian, are intermingled with rare urban views captured in the new medium of photography, including early cityscapes owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum, many of them seen publicly for the first time.
A stained glass window (1844-47) by William Jay Bolton and John Bolton (St Ann and the Holy Trinity Church, Brooklyn) represents the first major program of stained glass made in America; it complements “Miriam and Jubal,” the monumental organ window from the same church, which is on permanent view in the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing.
The Triumph of American Artists
By the mid-1840s, American painting and sculpture had come into their own, and New York City was the center of the American art scene. In the eleventh gallery, titled “The Triumph of American Artists,” each of America’s major artists is represented by a signature work known to have been exhibited in New York City or owned by a New York collector during the period.
Among these diverse masterpieces is “Fur Traders Descending the Missouri” (1845, The Metropolitan Museum of Art), painted for the New York market by the Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham; William Sidney Mount’s “Eel Spearing at Setauket” (1845, New York State Historical Association); “New York Harbor” by Fitz Hugh Lane (1850, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston); and Eastman Johnson’s “Negro Life at the South” (1859, The New-York Historical Society, on permanent loan from The New York Public Library).
Sculpture ranging from Chauncey Bradley Ives’ Neo-classical marble of “Ruth” (modeled 1849 and carved 1851 or later, Chrysler Museum of Art) to the painted plaster “Slave Auction” by John Rogers (1859, The New-York Historical Society), to the cast bronze “Indian Hunter” by John Quincy Adams Ward (modeled 1857-60, The Metropolitan Museum of Art) are among the other works in the gallery.
The Heart of the Andes
The exhibition culminates in the dramatic display of Frederic Edwin Church’s monumental painting “The Heart of the Andes” (1859). This masterpiece from the Metropolitan’s collection, an idealized depiction of an exotic South American vista, is the sole work of art on view in the final gallery, presented as it was originally – as a single picture in a darkened room. The painting is displayed in a reconstruction of the original, elaborate, freestanding frame of dark wood that the artist designed for it, intending to create the effect of looking through a casement window onto an actual landscape.
During its 1859 single-picture debut in New York, the painting was seen by no fewer than 12,000 viewers. Subsequently it was shown to great acclaim in London, after which it was returned to the United States and then toured the country until 1861. In addition, this remarkable painting was one of the works exhibited at the Sanitary Fair of 1864, an event organized to raise funds for the war wounded, and which inspired the citizens of New York to call for a city museum. Although the Civil War intervened, in 1870 Frederic Church helped to found that museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated scholarly catalogue, which is available in both softcover and hardbound editions in the museum’s bookshops. The publication, published by the Metropolitan Museum and distributed by Yale University Press, features previously unpublished material on the complex story of American art in the second quarter of the Nineteenth Century, discussed in 13 essays.
Contributors include, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art: John K. Howat, the Lawrence A. Fleischman Chairman, departments of American art; from the department of American decorative arts, Morrison H. Heckscher, the Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Curator; Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, curator; Amelia Peck, associate curator; and Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, associate curator; from the department of American paintings and sculpture, Carrie Rebora Barratt, associate curator and manager, The Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of American Art; Kevin J. Avery, associate curator; Thayer Tolles, associate curator; and Elliot Bostwick Davis, assistant curator; and from the department of photographs, Jeff L. Rosenheim, assistant curator.
Other contributors include Caroline Rennolds Milbank, fashion historian; Dell Upton, professor of architectural history, University of California, Berkeley; and Deborah Dependahl Waters, curator of decorative arts and manuscripts, Museum of the City of New York.
The exhibition is organized by John K. Howat and by Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, who is project director for the exhibition and catalogue. The exhibition is made possible by Fleet. The exhibition catalogue is made possible through the support of the William Cullen Bryant Fellows.
A related exhibition, “Intimate Friends: Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and William Cullen Bryant,” will be on view concurrently at The New-York Historical Society (October 17 to February 4, 2001).
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