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

September 19, 2000–January 7, 2001

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. 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).