The United States and Canada, 1800–1900 A.D.

  • Card table
  • Presentation vase
  • View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm--The Oxbow
  • Genius of Mirth
  • Fur Traders Descending the Missouri
  • Sofa
  • Plums
  • Century Vase
  • Madame X (Madame Pierre Gautreau)
  • Vase


1800 A.D.

1825 A.D.

Early Republic, 1790–1820
Antebellum Era, 1820–50

1825 A.D.

1850 A.D.

Antebellum Era, 1820–50

1850 A.D.

1875 A.D.

Antebellum Era, 1820–50

1875 A.D.

1900 A.D.


The capital of the United States is established at Washington, D.C., a new city located at the junction of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. The nation expands rapidly in the early nineteenth century, most notably with the purchase of Louisiana (from Napoleon for about $15 million), which doubles the size of the country. With the founding, early in the century, of the American Academy of the Fine Arts (New York) and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Philadelphia), and later The Metropolitan Museum (New York) and The Museum of Fine Arts (Boston), the nation’s artistic roots are sewn.

Key Events

  • 1800

    Washington, D.C. becomes the capital of the United States, a new city located at the junction of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754–1825) designs an imposing plan modeled on the radiating arteries of Versailles with grand public spaces and spacious avenues centered on a domed Capitol.

  • 1802

    The American Academy of the Fine Arts is founded in 1802 in New York by Mayor Edward Livingston (1764–1836; 38.41) with the help of his brother Robert R. Livingston (1746–1813), U.S. minister to France, who sends a collection of sculptural casts from Paris.

  • 1803

    President Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826; 24.19.1) purchases the French territory of Louisiana for about $15 million from Napoleon, doubling the size of the nation with the addition of the vast region between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Jefferson sends his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis (1774–1809) and army officer William Clark (1770–1838) to explore the region in the years 1804–6.

  • 1805

    The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts is founded in Philadelphia by painter Charles Willson Peale (1741–1827) and sculptor William Rush (1756–1833).

  • 1820

    The Missouri Compromise allows Maine to enter the union as a free state and Missouri to enter as a slave state, maintaining a sectional balance between southern and northern states in the U.S. Senate and setting boundaries for slavery in the lands of the Louisiana Purchase.

  • 1825

    The Erie Canal (1988.199) opens in 1825 from Albany to Buffalo and Lake Erie. The canal connects the Hudson River cities of Albany and New York with the vast interior of the nation, the growing farming communities of upstate New York and the Great Lakes region, allowing New York merchants to turn their city into the economic center of the nation.

  • 1825

    A group of artists led by the painter Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872; 09.18), later the inventor of the telegraph, establish the National Academy of Design, an art school and exhibition venue for contemporary arts.

  • 1830

    The Indian Removal Act attempts to remove the Cherokee and other “Civilized Tribes” living in the southwestern states (Creeks, Choctaws, Chickasaws, and Seminoles) to federal land west of the Mississippi. The Supreme Court ruling in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) declares that the state of Georgia’s claim of state law over Cherokee land is unconstitutional, but President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845; 94.14) ignores the decision. In 1838, his successor Martin Van Buren (1782–1862) sends the army to march the remaining 18,000 Cherokee people to Oklahoma; 4,000 die on the “Trail of Tears.”

  • 1831

    The Mount Auburn Cemetery opens in Cambridge, Massachusetts, outside Boston. The first “rural landscape” cemetery addresses problems with older burial practices, and provides city dwellers and tourists with an experience of nature. The naturalistic landscaping accentuates the rural character of the site, while large sculptural monuments celebrate the lives of the deceased.

  • 1836

    Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) publishes his essay Nature; he becomes the central figure in a circle of radical thinkers and writers known as the Transcendentalists, who share a belief in a higher reality than that found in the experiences of the senses or achieved by human reason. Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862) publishes Walden, or, Life in the Woods (1854), his effort to put these philosophical ideals into practice in the real world.

  • 1837

    The Panic of 1837, the culmination of a speculative boom, causes a six-year depression with numerous bank failures and widespread unemployment.

  • 1839

    The daguerreotype, invented by Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1787–1851), is introduced into the United States by artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872). The light-sensitized metal plate becomes an early form of photography. Mathew Brady (1823?–1896) sets up a studio in New York in 1844.

  • 1842

    The American Art-Union is founded as an annual lottery open to anyone who purchases a membership; the prizes are the paintings purchased each year by the organization. All members receive an engraving each year of a popular painting. The Art-Union is enormously successful in supporting American artists and helps to develop a taste and market for American subject matter among the middle class. It is forced to cease after a court decision outlaws it as a lottery.

  • 1844

    Dry-goods merchant A. T. Stewart (1803–1876) begins building his grand “Marble Palace,” the first department store, in New York.

  • 1846

    The Mexican War begins when General Zachary Taylor (1784–1850) crosses the Rio Grande into Mexico. General Winfield Scott (1786–1866) seizes Mexico City in September of 1847. The United States receives Texas, New Mexico, and Alta California from Mexico in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848)

  • 1848

    Workmen discover gold in the Sierra Nevada foothills at the mill site of German immigrant John Sutter. News reaches the East Coast and President Polk confirms the discovery in his annual address to Congress. In 1849 alone, more than 80,000 migrants, known as “forty-niners,” arrive. California becomes a state in 1850 (72.3).

  • 1848

    Michael Knoedler (died 1878) opens the first New York gallery for Paris dealer Goupil, Vobert, and Company; the venues for art exhibitions expand with the arrival of foreign galleries and auction houses in the late 1840s and 1850s.

  • 1850

    The Compromise of 1850 averts a sectional crisis. California enters the union as a free state but the balance is broken between free and slave states in the U.S. Senate. Territories acquired as a result of the Mexican War are allowed to enter the union by the principle of popular sovereignty. The Fugitive Slave Act puts federal authority and officials behind the return of enslaved people who have escaped to freedom.

  • 1852

    Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896), the most successful novelist of the antebellum era, publishes the antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which sells 350,000 copies in its first year.

  • 1853

    Commodore Matthew C. Perry (1794–1858) sails into Tokyo Bay and succeeds in signing a full commercial treaty with Japan.

  • 1853

    The New-York Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations opens with the commemoration of its central exhibition hall, the Crystal Palace, an iron and glass structure that features displays of manufactured goods and artistic achievement. This first world’s fair on U.S. soil is modeled after the 1851 London Crystal Palace.

  • 1857

    The American Institute of Architects is founded in New York.

  • 1858

    The Greensward Plan for a pastoral park in the center of Manhattan is completed by Fredrick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), the park’s superintendent, and Calvert Vaux (1824–1895). The 843-acre Central Park is the first large landscaped public park in the country.

  • 1861–65

    The United States Civil War, a military conflict between the Union and the Confederacy, begins in April 1861 when Charleston’s Fort Sumter is fired upon. The conflict lasts four years, takes more than 600,000 lives, and emancipates 4 million enslaved people.

  • 1869

    The Transcontinental Railroad is completed when a golden spike is driven at Promontory Point, Utah Territory, linking the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific railroads.

  • 1870

    The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston are founded by urban leaders to display art and promote art education to the public. The Metropolitan Museum’s painting collection begins with three private European collections; the Museum moves in 1880 to its present site in Central Park.

  • 1872

    Yellowstone Basin of the Wyoming Territory becomes the first national park after the Hayden Expedition of 1871 with the artist Thomas Moran (1837–1926) convinces many that the wilderness area needs to be set aside and preserved from development.

  • 1876

    Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) invents the telephone, uttering the famous first words to his assistant: “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you.”

  • 1876

    The Centennial Exposition or “International Exhibition of Arts, Manufactures, and Products of the Soil and Mine,” opens in Philadelphia as an anniversary of U.S. independence and celebration of scientific and industrial progress (1996.95). Thomas Eakins’ Gross Clinic, rejected by the Exposition’s art jury, is exhibited instead in the medical section, inciting much controversy over its uncompromising realism.

  • 1877

    The last federal troops leave South Carolina and effectively end the federal government’s presence in the South, bringing the Reconstruction era to a close.

  • 1879

    Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931) builds the first incandescent electric light with a carbonized cotton thread filament.

  • 1882

    The Chinese Exclusion Act is passed by Congress and bars the further entry of Chinese laborers into the United States.

  • 1883

    The Brooklyn Bridge, after fifteen years of construction, is completed. The giant suspension bridge linking Brooklyn and Manhattan is a new symbol of functional architecture.

  • 1885

    Mark Twain (1835–1910) publishes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a comic novel of Huck, a boy who flees his father by rafting down the Mississippi River with a runaway slave, Jim.

  • 1885

    Chicago’s Home Insurance Company building is completed. Architect William LeBaron Jenney (1832—1907) designs the first skyscraper with a load-bearing structural frame of steel, inaugurating the skyscraper age.

  • 1885

    In his studio at Prouts Neck, Maine, Winslow Homer (1836–1910) begins a series of seascapes in which he conveys, without sentimentality or literary allusions, man’s struggle against the elemental power of the ocean.

  • 1886

    The Statue of Liberty is dedicated in New York Harbor to commemorate the friendship of the United States and France. Sculptor Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (1834–1904) and engineer Gustave Eiffel (1832–1923) collaborate on the pedestal and statue.

  • 1888

    The amateur photography craze is launched with the invention of the Kodak #1 camera by George Eastman (1854–1932).

  • 1893

    The World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago opens to mark the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) lays out the grounds of what becomes known as the “White City” and Daniel H. Burnham (1846–1912) oversees the architectural designs. A Neoclassical style is chosen for the main Court of Honor. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932) delivers a lecture, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” at a meeting held in Chicago.

  • 1896

    The Supreme Court, in Plessy v. Ferguson, rules that segregation is not discriminatory provided that African Americans have accommodations equal to those of whites, establishing the “separate but equal” doctrine.

  • 1898

    The Spanish-American War begins as Spain and the United States go to war over issues involving Spanish colonies in the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. American victories in Cuba and the Philippines steer the U.S. to a role as a world power.


“The United States and Canada, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)