Exhibitions/ Art and the Empire City

Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825–1861

September 19 / 2000–January 7 / 2001
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

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 completion 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 thirty-five years, until the outbreak 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 domestic and foreign trade, culture, and the arts. This landmark exhibition explores the history of American art during this time through works created in and for New York City. On view are more than three hundred objects—paintings, sculpture, photography, prints, maps and architectural drawings, decorative arts, and costumes—from American and European collections, as well as from the Metropolitan's holdings.


The exhibition was made possible by Fleet.

The exhibition catalogue was made possible through the support of the William Cullen Bryant Fellows.

The exhibition opens with works representing 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. Immediately, visitors encounter the imposing full-length portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette (1825–26) by Samuel F. B. Morse, on loan from New York's City Hall. Lafayette was much loved in America for his role in the Revolutionary War and returned to the United States in 1824 for a grand, national tour. In New York, he witnessed the opening of the Erie Canal, and City officials were inspired to commission his portrait. All of the major artists in New York vied for the opportunity to paint Lafayette. The commission—the most important of the decade—guaranteed Morse's position as a leader among artists, initiating the brilliant career of the man who would become a master of photography, inventor of the telegraph, a founder and first president of the National Academy of Design, and a champion of the movement to foster the arts in America.

Flanking Lafayette's portrait is a pair of monumental silver presentation vases from the Metropolitan's own collection, crafted in 1824–25 by Philadelphians 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. Cole captivated New York artists and art patrons with his depictions of the American wilderness, elevating landscape to the status of serious subject matter in painting. His followers—Asher B. Durand, Frederic E. Church, and other New York City artists—came to be known as the Hudson River School.

Hand-colored engravings, aquatints, and lithographs in the exhibition depicted New York as it was then—concentrated in lower Manhattan below 14th Street. The gallery features works from the Metropolitan's collection, such as William J. Bennett's engraving South Street from Maiden Lane (ca. 1828), a streetscape still recognizable today, and the large-scale New York Harbor from the Battery (1829) by Thomas Thompson, a landmark in the history of American lithography. Thomas Hornor's early depiction of Broadway at Canal Street (1836), an aquatint and etching with hand-coloring, shows the city's main street bustling with merchants, carriages, carts, and shoppers.

During the 1820s and 1830s, before the influence of Cole's interpretations of the American landscape was felt, portraiture dominated American painting and sculpture. The exhibition's second gallery re-creates an early nineteenth-century portrait gallery, recalling the famous Governor's Room (then the actual New York City office of the state's governor) in City Hall. The gallery presents painted portraits and marble busts of some of New York's most distinguished artists, writers, and cultural and political leaders by the nation'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 statesman 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 featured in the exhibition as they were 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 compelling clarity and beauty illustrate the style that dominated the period between 1825 and about 1840, on view in the third gallery. In addition to original presentation drawings, the gallery includes selections from a masterpiece of early New York lithography, Alexander Jackson Davis's Views of the Public Buildings in the City of New York Correctly Drawn on Stone (1827), printed by Anthony Imbert. Two of the works from the series, 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 facade of the Branch Bank of the United States, are of particular interest because both the panorama and the facade can be seen on permanent display in the Metropolitan Museum's American Wing.

The fourth gallery features interior furnishings that would have been found in Grecian-style houses and decorative arts in various media dating from around 1830 to 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 Greek Revival 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 (ca. 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. A rosewood armchair, couch, and six nested tables (all from private collections) are part of a large order of furniture supplied by Duncan Phyfe and Son in 1840–41 for use at Millford plantation in South Carolina. Such works exemplify the appreciation in other parts of the country for New York style and allude to New York's ability to supply fine goods to broader domestic markets, especially in the South.

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 Cole (who had died in 1848) and poet William Cullen Bryant. Marble busts of Cole and Bryant by Henry Kirke Brown flank the painting. Robert Weir's depiction of St. Nicholas (ca. 1837; The New-York Historical Society) lends an elfish face to the character developed by Clement Clarke Moore in 1823 in his classic New York City poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (popularly known as "The Night Before Christmas").

A measure of New York's increasing cultural sophistication is 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 Landscape with a Ruined Castle and a Church (A Grand Landscape) 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 1853 The Horse Fair, which is in the Metropolitan's permanent collection. Works ranging from Bartolomé Esteban Murillo's painting Four Figures on a Step (ca. 1655; The Kimbell Art Museum), to Danish sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen's Ganymede and the Eagle (1817–29; The Minneapolis Institute of Arts), to J. M. W. 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 collection of Thomas J. Bryan, and now in the Metropolitan), as well engravings after Old Masters (such as Rembrandt) and contemporary works (by Paul Delaroche and David Wilkie)—are among the other works on display in this gallery.

New York's presence on the international stage of world culture was heralded by the 1853 "New-York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations," the focus of this gallery. The exhibition, also known as The New York Crystal Palace, was housed in a cast-iron and glass building on the present-day site of Bryant Park, at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 42nd Street. 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 displayed there, including the renowned Greek Slave (modeled 1841–43; carved 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, shown for the first time in this exhibition; and a recently rediscovered Gothic-style carved oak bookcase (The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art) made by Gustave Herter, who was to become America's premier cabinetmaker and decorator by the end of the Civil War. O. A. Gager and Company, a New York City retailer, fascinated Crystal Palace visitors with an impressive display of wares made by the United States Pottery Company of Bennington, Vermont. Referencing the original 1853 presentation, the gallery features the ten-foot-high ceramic center monument as well as many smaller works, from the Bennington Museum and the Metropolitan's collection.

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 included), 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 Paris or London. The exhibition includes works by well-known pioneers in the field—Mathew B. Brady and Jeremiah Gurney, among them—as well as lesser-known artists, including Gabriel Harrison and Samuel Root, whose contributions to this art form only now are being brought to public attention. Also on display in this gallery is a selection of miniature portraits, a medium which preceded and was displaced by the advent of photography.

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. In the center of the gallery two mannequins in silk day dresses, shoppers en promenade, suggested a popular pastime as well as New York's reputation as a center of fashion. 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 a silver tray, pitcher, and two goblets (1856) presented by Temple Emanu-El to the Reverend Dr. D. Einhorn (Congregation 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 in the exhibition by a spectacular compote made for President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln at the Long Island Flint Glass Works of Christian Dorflinger of Brooklyn, New York (1861). 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 (ca. 1855; Milwaukee Art Museum), and an elaborately carved rosewood étagère by Alexander Roux (ca. 1855). 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, Maine). 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).

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, attests. Frederick Law Olmsted's presentation boards (Municipal Archives) depicting proposals for Central Park, which was under development at this time, are featured. 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) represent 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.

By the mid-1840s, New York City was the center of the American art scene. American painting and sculpture flourished and American artists had greater creative freedom than ever before. In the eleventh gallery, many of America's major artists of the period are represented by signature works known to have been exhibited in New York City or owned by New York collectors. Among these diverse masterpieces are Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (1845), 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), painted on Long Island; New York Harbor by Fitz Hugh Lane, a Gloucester marine painter (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 Erastus Dow Palmer's White Captive (modeled 1857–58 and carved 1858–59), 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) are among the other works featured in the gallery. Also on view are engravings, etchings, and lithographs that explore the relationship between American painters and the art of printmaking, a medium that helped to make art available to a broader public.

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 twelve thousand 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.