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Art In The Empire City

New York, 1825-1861

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

September 19, 2000 to January 7, 2001

New York, 1855, from the Latting Observatory

"New York, 1855, from the Latting Observatory," engraving with hand coloring, William Wellstood, engraver, after Benjamin F. Smith Jr., artist, Smith, Fern and Company, publisher, looking south with reservoir and Crystal Palace in foreground on site now occupied by the New York Public Library and Bryant Park. Collection of The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, Miriam and Ira D.Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The Phelps Stokes Collection.

By Michele Leight

This large exhibition presents a broad selection of many different visual arts in New York City in the period between the completion of the Erie Canal and the onslaught of the Civil War, a time when the city rose to national prominence as the commercial and cultural capitol of the nation.

In addition to paintings, drawings, prints and sculpture, the exhibition includes fine examples of furniture making, glassmaking, fashion, photography and architectural drawings.

As a glimpse into a specific historic period, it is not part of the popular, but controversial curatorial trend to present art thematically rather than historically. The Metropolitan's American Wing has some wonderful "period" rooms that are perhaps the best way to sink into the cultural style of a particular time, but this exhibition, which includes many important loans from other institutions, is divided into rooms devoted to specific arts or crafts. It is also an exhibition whose catalogue contains far more material than what the museum visitor can see. Indeed, the catalogue is far better than the exhibition because about half of it is devoted to material not in the exhibition with many expert essays with excellent historic data and reproductions.

The show's evidence is that the arts of this era flourished and produced considerable magnificence for the new rich of the city. "Despite occasional catastrophic fires (in 1835 and 1845, notably) and financial depressions (in 1837 and 1857, for example) visited on the city, the New York art world flourished in the decades prior to 1861," wrote John K. Howat, Lawrence A. Fleischman Chairman, Department of American Art, and Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, Associate Curator, Department of American Decorative Arts, in their preface to the catalogue.

In his essay, "Private Collections and Public Spirit: A Selective View," Mr. Howat provides the following overview for the exhibition:

"In 1825 New York City, which is to say the small urban cluster gathered at the bottom of Manhattan Island, had a population of about 166,000. Society was presided over by a prosperous but not very large group of leaders - landholders, merchants, bankers, lawyers, manufacturers (including sophisticated craftsmen), physicians, educators, politicians, a few artists and writers, and people of leisure - only a few of whom had traveled extensively abroad. These leaders had only a circumscribed knowledge and experience of fine-art objects, especially items from other cultures, and only a limited access to art publications. New York, like the nation, was in its cultural youth. By 1861 the city, still legally constitituted only of Manhattan Island, boasted more than 820,000 citizens....New York City's world of visual arts was transformed from a small, close-knit, mostly private, and somewhat naive community into a large, complicated, and sophisticated one with a much broader view of the role of the arts in public life."

In his catalogue essay, "Building the Empire City: Architects and Architecture," Morrison H. Heckscher gives the following perspective:

"Compared with Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., New York City in 1825 was an architectural backwater. The city had no brilliant professionals like the native-born Charles Bulfinch or the immigrant Benjamin Henry Latrobe, no inspired amateur like Thomas Jefferson. It was not a capital city that could readily command monumental governmental structures; nor did the steady northward grasp of its street grid allow them many appropriately dramatic sites. Nevertheless, such was the city's rapid growth and accumulation of wealth over the next thirty-five years, such was its primacy as the commercial center of the nation, that architects naturally gravitated there. By 1860, it is fair to say, New York had become the center of architectural activity in America; it was even the seat of the recently founded American Institute of Architects. The years 1825 through 1840, the heyday of the Greek Revival in New York, are best seen through the eyes and writings of Alexander Jackson Davis, illustrator and artist as well as architect."

With the exception of the Hudson River School of landscape painting founded by Thomas Cole, however, the era might well be considered "baroque" in comparison with the "renaissance" of the highly elegant Federal period that preceded it with classical designs that well imitated the high European standards of the time. Greek Revival would be followed by a host of historical revival styles in architecture and furniture. The Hudson River School focused on the majesty of American's bountiful New England landscapes and inspired and glorified the nation's "manifest destiny" that would late blossom and culminate in the sensational landscapes of the West in the post-Civil War period by such artists as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran and the exotic scenes in distant lands depicted by Frederic Edwin Church, whose famous "Heart of the Andes" is presented in a very grandiose frame in its own room in this exhibition.

While there are numerous superb paintings on view – most conspicuous being those of the Hudson River School – the exhibit, which is sponsored by Fleet, is more of an historical sojourn through a particularly significant time in New York’s history; although the plethora of jugs, vases, textiles and memorabilia are informative, they often confuse and detract from the superb artworks. The intent to inform on the parallel decorative, fashion and architectural trends of the time is obvious, but fewer examples of ceramics, glass and furniture would not have hurt the show. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the finest museums in the world after all, and not the New York Historical Society or the Museum of the City of New York. However, to contradict all of the above, one of the most wonderful "artifacts" at the show is what would be described as an "architectural element" - a mouth-watering marble "Mantel" by Fisher and Bird, (1851), shown below, depicting scenes from Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s "Paul et Virginie,"(1788) which shows the impressive heights the craftsmanship of the time did attain.

Mantel by Fisher and Bird

Mantel depicting scenes from Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie (1788), marble, Risher and Bird, 1851, Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Edward W. Freeman

Samuel B. Morse’s elegant, full-length portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette (1825-26, Collection of the City of New York, courtesy of the Art Commission of the City of New York), is an imposing and surprising introduction to the exhibit as the dashing and very colorful portrait highlights a superb artist who is better known as the inventor of the Morse Code. Morse was also a founder in 1825 of the National Academy of Design (which is exhibiting a superb show that coincides with this one on "Rave Reviews," a history of art criticism in America from 1825 to 1925.)

"The Rise of a Great City," the opening gallery’s theme, offers a fascinating history of New York’s meteoric rise from a quiet port to a world city over four short decades. Morse’s portrait was a sign of the times: the Marquis of Lafayette had just returned to New York in 1825, the triumphant hero of the Revolutionary War. Placed symbolically near this portrait are two grand, gleaming silver vases by the Philadelphia silversmith/designer team of Thomas Fletcher (1787-1866) and Sidney Gardiner (187-1827) that were presented to Governor Clinton in appreciation of his championing of the Erie Canal, the opening of which in 1824 marked a turning point for New York, and heralded its new beginning as a world city. The first vase (1824) is inscribed: "…The Merchants of New York, /TO THE HON. DEWITT CLINTON/Whose claim to the proud title of "Public Benefactor"/is founded on those magnificent works. /The Northern and Western CANALS" (collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Samuel Morse was the first President of the National Academy of Design, founded in 1825, and the genius who invented the Morse Code. He epitomized the emerging "Renaissance" man, and the paintings and sculpture at the show reflect the more knowledgeable, cultured and affluent New York sensibility of the fledgling city of 200 years ago, on the verge of becoming a super-city and the financial, commercial and cultural center of the world – a position it unequivocally holds today.

The 360-mile long Erie Canal positioned the quiet port of New York as the new gateway to the West. While not exactly a backwater in 1825, New York is barely recognizable as the city we know today. A map drawn up by the cartographer John Randall Jr., and published by William Bridges states: "This Map of the City of New York and the Island of Manhattan as Laid Out by the Commissioners, 1811;" the engraving shows two thirds of the island as woods, the New York Public Library as a Reservoir, literally dozens of church spires, and all the action – the only "action" - down by the Seaport. It appears no different than Philadelphia or Baltimore at that time - barely 200 years ago. (Hand-colored line engraving on copper. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Geography and Map Division).

The 40-year span of the exhibit represents one of the most rapid developments of an urban landscape ever seen in this country – or any country. Yet in the midst of all the urbanization and commercial and financial euphoria, the Hudson River School painters – notably Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand and Frederic Edwin Church – captured the breathtaking beauty and majesty of the unspoiled wilderness of the surrounding countryside.

"Kindred Spirits" by Asher B. Durand

"Kindred Spirits" by Asher B. Durand, oil on canvas, 1849, New York Public Library, gift of Julia Bryant

The famous painting by Asher B. Durand, (1796-1886), "Kindred Spirits" (1849), shown above, of Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant on a promontory in the Catskill wilderness, is on loan for this show from the New York Public Library. (Gift of Julia Bryant, Commissioned by Jonathan Sturges as a gift to William Cullen Bryant, exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1849). Refined oil paintings of Cole, Durand and Bryant are amongst a fine collection of "luminaries" displayed on a portrait wall, as are numerous fascinating early daguerreotypes of bastions of New York society of the time – politicians, artists, and poets – including a mesmerizing Walt Whitman, attributed to Gabriel Harrison, circa 1854 (The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, Rare Books Division.)

Not to be forgotten or excluded are the more down-to-earth members of New York society; like the bowler-hatted, neatly cravated "Brooklyn Grocery Boy with Parcel," captured by an unknown artist (1850s, Daguerreotype, Hallmark Photographic Collection, Hallmark Cards, Inc., Kansas City, Missouri). Representing popular culture and entertainment is another daguerreotype of "P.T. Barnum and Charles Stratton," or the miniature "Tom Thumb," attributed to Samuel Root or Marcus Aurelius Root. (1843-50, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.)

A severe portrait of Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt by Matthew B. Brady, her face framed by ringlets as youthful as she is not, imprisoned in a corseted and ribboned gown as romantic as she appears formidable, suggests the forced double standards and suppressed dreams of the women of her time, and offers more than a hint of the frustrations which would soon inspire and lead the suffragette movement. (circa 1860, salted paper print from glass negative. Gilman Paper Company Collection, New York.) On the softer side there is the feminine and exquisite "Woman’s evening toilette, worn to the Prince of Wales Ball, 1860," by Mrs. Lyon Gardner held in honor of the Royal visit, attributed to Worth et Bobergh, Paris; it is a subtly hued gown of gorgeous cut-velvet, woven in Lyon, where all the "fancy" velvets hailed from in those days. (Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Sara Diodan Gardiner)

As can be expected, "views" and "vistas" of New York abound at this exhibition, like "View down Fifth Avenue," circa 1855 (The John Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), representing a serendipitously uncrowded, unpaved city lined with trees and low rise apartment buildings brownstones, and elegant mansions and the ever-present church steeple peeking through the branches of leafless winter trees. The flip side to such elite and elegant neighborhoods was the human reality that New York’s population multiplied from 125,000 to 815,000 between 1825 and 1860. There was terrible overcrowding in the poorer sections of town, where the living conditions for the inhabitants – including waves of new immigrants - were primitive and hazardous, resulting in illness and disease till plumbing and drainage were established.

One of the greatest vistas is "New York, 1855, from the Latting Observatory," shown at the top of this article, an engraving with hand coloring, William Wellstood, engraver, after Benjamin F. Smith Jr., artist, Smith, Fern and Company, publisher, looking south with reservoir and Crystal Palace in foreground on site now occupied by the New York Public Library and Bryant Park. (Collection of The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations, Miriam and Ira D.Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The Phelps Stokes Collection.)

"New York from Governors Island" aquatint by John Hill after William Guy Wall

"New York from Governors Island" by John Hill, engraver, after William Guy Wall, artist, and Henry J. Megarey, publisher, 1823-4 from The Hudson River Portfolio, aquatint with hand coloring, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps and Pictures

Another superb view is shown above, "New York from Governors Island" by John Hill, engraver, after William Guy Wall, artist, and Henry J. Megarey, publisher, 1823-4 from The Hudson River Portfolio, aquatint with hand coloring, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps and Pictures.

"Wall Street" by James Cafferty and Charles G. Rosenberg

"Wall Street, Half Past 2 O'Clock, October 13, 1857" by James H. Cafferty and Charles G. Rosenberg, oil on canvas, 1858, Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the Honorable Irwin Untermeyer

A great urban scene is "Wall Street, Half Past 2 O'Clock, October 13, 1857," shown above, by James H. Cafferty and Charles G. Rosenberg, oil on canvas, 1858, Museum of the City of New York, Gift of the Honorable Irwin Untermeyer.

Central Park as we know it today was open countryside back then, most poignantly captured in a lithograph from a glass negative by Matthew B. Brady of the designers Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s "Greensward" Plan for Central Park, No.4: From Point D, Looking Northeast across a Landscape Depicting Belvedere Castle, Gondola and Gazebo, 1857. (Lithograph, albumen silver print from glass negative, and oil on paper, mounted on board. Municipal Archives, Department of Records and Information Services, City of New York.)

"Negro Life at the South" by Eastman Johnson

"Negro Life at the South" by Eastman Johnson, oil on canvas, 1859, The New York Historical Society, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, on permanent loan from The New York Public Library

Eastman Johnson's "Negro Life at the South," shown above, is a very great genre painting that was executed in 1859 and many studies of the different groups exist. The painting is on loan from The New York Historical Society, The Robert L. Stuart Collection, on permanent loan from The New York Public Library

A short two years later, a Currier & Ives lithograph by Charles Parsons of "Central Park, Winter: The Skating Pond," circa 1861 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Adele S. Colgate) shows an elegantly landscaped Central Park, with crowds of top-hatted, fur-collared New Yorkers taking some time out to frolic in a winter wonderland "designed" or landscaped by Olmsted and Vaux, who were strongly influenced by the legendary English landscape architect, "Capability Brown."

Shopping soon became a favorite New York pastime as affluent citizens sought to improve the quality of their homes and their contents, and fashionable clothing stores became established to tempt potential customers. Broadway, New York’s main artery, gave rise to streets so crowded one Swedish visitor worried "I merely think of getting across the street alive…" and a Russian writer lamented: "Despite the wide sidewalks, the crush is so great that one cannot make a step without poking someone with elbows or body. If you want to excuse yourself or if you wait for apologies, the American has flown by like an arrow," are quotes unearthed by Caroline Rennolds Milbank in her catalogue essay, "'Ahead of the World': New York City Fashion."

Portfolio cabinet-on-stand by J. and J. W. Meeks

Portfolio cabinet-on-stand with a scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, J. and J. W. Meeks, rosewood, cross-stitched needlepoint panel, circa 1845, collection of Mrs. Sammie Chandler

Decorators, cabinetmakers, textile, glass and ceramic manufacturers and silversmiths flourished; the exhibition is brimming over (sometimes to overflowing), with excellent examples of each craft, most notably furniture by Joseph Meeks and Sons, J.H. Belter and Sons and Gustave Herter. There are some major surprises in the furniture section: the richness of some of the rosewood pieces is astounding, especially those with minimal detailing; a John Henry Belter sofa is quite unusual in his oeuvre in its very ornate but dense ormanentation along its top and not at all indicative of his gracefulness when he is at his best. The American rococo furniture deserves its own show and as dense as this exhibition is, it glosses over a lot. James and Ralph Clew’s (English, Staffordshire) "Platter depicting the Marquis de Lafayette’s arrival at Castle Garden, August 16, 1824, circa 1825-34 must have been a best-seller in its day, just as similar "souvenir" ceramics are today. (White earthenware with blue transfer-printed decoration. Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mrs. Harry H. Bunkered).

Thomas Cole by Matthew Brady

"Thomas Cole," daguerreotype by Matthew B. Brady, 1844-8, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Gift of Edith Cole Silberstein

1825 was a fortuitous year as it welcomed the painter Thomas Cole to the metropolis. In the exhibition catalog Kevin J. Avery states in "Selling the Sublime and Beautiful: New York Landscape Painting and Tourism: "…Cole’s discovery took place within days of the celebration marking the opening of the Erie Canal, which more than any other single factor contributed to the rise of New York as the Empire City, America’s first and most important metropolis. Cole and the Empire City began their ascent at the same moment."

Cole, shown above in a daguerreotype by Matthew B. Brady, one of many fascinating and superb small portraits in the exhibition, placed a number of his paintings with George Dixey, a carver and gilder, who sold art supplies on Chatham Street. After a sojourn in the Catskills, Cole returned with glorious painted scenes, which he immediately placed at another artists supply shop, the antiquarian William A. Colman, who offered them at $25 a piece.

William Dunlap bought "Lake with Dead Trees, (Catskills)," 1825, (Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio), which is on view at this show. Asher B. Durand bought a scene of the ruins of Fort Putnam, (unlocated), and both men lost no time in placing their purchases in the exhibition at the American Academy of Fine Arts, which had just opened that October in New York.

It is, nevertheless, Colonel John Trumbull, president of the American Academy of Fine Arts and painter of the Revolution, who is credited with the discovery of Cole in October, 1825. He bought a painting immediately and encouraged two artist friends to buy two others, his enthusiasm inspiring other connoisseurs to buy Cole’s work.

Fate was kind to Thomas Cole, and his timing was perfect – but oh what a talent the man possessed! It is conceivable that he would have attracted connoisseurs of art even if he had sold his paintings from a cart on the sidewalk. There is no mistaking Cole’s genius, which was set on fire by the magical light and verdant hills and valleys of the surrounding New York State wilderness. Many of the locations were accessible only on horseback, and as awe-inspiring as the Hudson River vistas are today, one can only imagine Cole’s response to them at a time when there were no cars or road signs or neon lights to mar the purity of one of the most "ideal" landscapes in the world, so faithfully portrayed in his work. The catalogue reproduces his spectacular "Course of Empire" series that is in the collection of the New York Historical Society across Central Park, but which are not on loan for this exhibition. Cole explored the didacticisms of series paintings, and the "Course of Empire" and "The Voyage of Life" are fabulous, but he is at his best and in his element in his pure landscape works.

Over-loaded with prints and textiles and jugs, this viewer was relieved to take one last look at a serene Thomas Cole, this time the "View of the Round Top in the Catskill Mountains," circa 1827 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), shown below. The mountain vantage point takes in the full breadth of the winding river, valleys and wispy clouds receding to a distant horizon; the painting is so alive one can almost breathe the pure, fresh air. Tree stumps, passing clouds and the depths of nature are signature Cole subjects and this relatively modest-size work may well be the best because of its bold contrasts and the quite marvelous treatment of the lifting mist and passing clouds.

"View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains" by Thomas Cole

"View of the Round-Top in the Catskill Mountains" by Thomas Cole, oil on canvas, circa 1827, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings

Quite apart form the aesthetic appeal of Cole’s landscapes, they were - for anyone who beheld them at the time - the first glimpse of an unexplored wilderness; in their own way they were advertisements for New York State and an inspiration for many to tour the Catskills and Upstate New York, the whole endeavor now made more pleasurable with the accessibility provided by the new Erie Canal. Prior to Cole’s pictorial adventures, such territory had been virgin, inhabited by Native Americans, where no white men dare to tread.

"Fur Traders Descending the Missouri" by George Caleb Bingham

"Fur Traders Descending the Missouri" by George Caleb Bingham, oil on canvas, 1845, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morris K. Jessup Fund

Other wilderness "idylls" might have taken their inspiration from Cole, such as George Caleb Bingham’s "Fur Traders Descending the Missouri," 1845 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Morris K. Jessup Fund), shown above, with a drowsy cat seated on the prow of the canoe and two fur traders looking directly at the viewer of this extraordinarily beautiful and very luminous painting.

Great American writers like James Fenimore Cooper were similarly inspired by the wilderness, and Thomas Cole’s scene from "The Last of the Mohicans": "Cora kneeling at the Feet of Tamenund," 1827, was based on the novel that was published the year before (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, Bequest of Alfred Smith). It is on view at the exhibit and the setting makes clear that it was no wonder that overseas visitors and Europeans new to the vast North American continent called it "God’s own country," a stupendous, rugged and awe-inspiring place.

European painting and sculpture are given prominence – for their influence on their American colleagues – at this show, the most eye-catching being a huge oil, "Modern Rome," 1757, by Giovanni Paolo Panini, Italian, (1691-1765), which is a replica of a painting of the same title exhibited at the American Academy of the Fine Arts in 1834; it shows a (palazzo) "atelier" crammed from floor to ceiling with architectural paintings and frock-coated artists and assistants working industriously on canvasses and discussing their work. Such grandeur and talent would inspire artists and architects anywhere, especially in the "New World’s" emerging metropolis, New York.

At the opposite end of the spectrum artistically, is J. M. W. Turner's (1775-1851) swirling, amorphous "Staffia, Fingal’s Cave," exhibited 1832, which highlights the intense romanticism and epic story-telling genius of England’s greatest "atmospherist," and to many, landscape painter. (Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, Paul Mellon Collection). His influence on landscape painting – everywhere – was profound, and taken in the stiff and starchy "academic" atmosphere of his time, he is in a league of his own in terms of modernity. (See The City Review article on "Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites.")

"The Horse Fair," (1853), by Rosa Bonheur (1822-1899) was for some time the most famous painting in America. This monumental work was executed by a woman and was the gift of Cornelius Vanderbilt to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1887. It is a thundering, romantic and energetic work, usually on view in the European Paintings Galleries at the Museum.

A final treat before departing is Frederic Edwin Church’s monumental (1826-1900), "The Heart of the Andes," 1859, (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), displayed as he once showed it, alone in a room with an ornate carved wood surround and curtain. Church was, in every sense of the word, Cole’s "disciple," raising landscape painting to an almost other-worldly realm of beauty and purity, paying homage to the great artist and teacher who had gone before him as he ventured forth to conquer new pictorial territory in South America and elsewhere. The huge wood surround is a bit pondersome as most paintings of the period were displayed in deep and large gilded frames with considerable detailing. The painting's lushness, of course, is overwhelming and a prelude to his even greater works to come in the post-Civil War period.


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