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

September 19, 2000–January 7, 2001

The Rise of a Great City (1825–1835)

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.