Freshly gilded, draped in luxury, bedecked in excess, by the mid 19th century New York City was dressed to kill – ready not only to assume its place as an artistic capital, but poised, with supreme confidence, to take on the world as ‘the Empire City’.
Lithographs such as John Bachmann’s Empire City – A Birdseye view of New-York and Environs (1855) or Arthur Lumley’s The Empire City, New York, Presented to the Subscribers to ‘The History of the City of New York’ (1859) are among the earliest representations to label New York as the Empire City. In Bachmann’s rendering, New York City is like a vortex of the vast American continent, seen stretching out across the page from east to west, and anticipating Saul Steinberg’s famous map-like images of 20th-century New York City totally dominating the intellectual heart and soul of the country. Lumley’s image is pure Empire City propaganda: pictured through a porthole, the city is flanked by statues of two of New York’s governors – De Witt Clinton and Peter Stuyvesant – thus linking the city’s proud Dutch colonial past to an expansionist future and the Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century conviction that the United States was a chosen land that had been allotted the entire North American continent by God. New York was selling its image as the gateway to that continent – a vast empire of riches to be exploited. And in doing so, it was seeking a place on the world stage.
With more than 300 works of art in all media – including painting, sculpture, maps, architectural drawings, photographs, prints, decorative arts and costumes – the Metropolitan Museum’s Departments of American Art have assembled the largest exhibition devoted to New York as the primary crucible for the nation’s visual arts since 1970, when the museum celebrated its hundredth birthday with its exhibition Nineteenth-Century America.
It was with the completion of Governor De Witt Clinton’s beloved project of the Erie Canal, which opened up a waterway to the Atlantic for the rich agriculture and raw materials of the American heartland by waterway, in 1825, that New York City began its commercial and financial domination of the nation. Art and the Empire City begins not with the world of goods but with a sequence of portraits and busts of the politically powerful: De Witt Clinton himself; the ardent federalist, first secretary of the US Treasury and founder of the Bank of New York Alexander Hamilton; the Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette; the steamship inventor and businessman Robert Fulton, and Philip Hone, mayor of New York City; and the intellectually and artistically prominent: the popular novelist Washington Irving; the poet and influential literary figure William Cullen Bryant; the novelist James Fenimore Cooper; the painter and Hudson River school founder Thomas Cole; the painter and inventor Samuel F.B. Morse; and the Hudson River school painter Asher B. Durand. All of them were to go on to help fashion the image of New York as a colossus guarding the entrance to the vast empire of the great American west.
The exhibition provides an extensive tour, through prints and engravings, of both lost and unexecuted cityscapes punctuated by edifices of high classicism, paying primary homage to the Greek revival style. Architects such as Alexander Jackson Davis and Ithiel Town employed this style for its artistic simplicity and prized it for an intellectual purity that befitted a new republic. In two unexecuted designs – ‘Syllabus Row’ (1830) and ‘Cross Block Terrace’ (1831), Davis interpreted the Greek revival style with restraint and severity. However, by 1833 in the design for the still partially extant ‘Colonnade Row’(built in 1834), Davis has already compromised the simplicity of his earlier designs in favour of a lavish display of excess – responding, perhaps, to the demands of his fashionable clients for a more ostentatious rendering of their new wealth and power.
As with Nero’s Rome or Charles II’s London, a ‘Great Fire’, in 1835, gave New York an excuse to rebuild and an opportunity to edit its architecture in its push toward primacy as the commercial and financial centre of the new republic. It would remain the presence of mercantile industry – its banks, stores, emporia and warehouses, and the absence of monumental government structures – that would continue to define the New York skyline as an Empire City throughout the period leading up to the American Civil War of the 1860s, and even up to the present day.
In embracing its new role as economic and cultural engine of progress, New York soon seemed eager to replace expressions of republican purity and classicism with imperial excess and splendour. By the mid 19th century, the Greek revival aesthetic had well given way to a rival of the 17th- and 18th-century baroque and rococo tastes of the French Bourbon kings as interpreted by such European-born designers and cabinet-makers as Julius Dessoir, Gustave Herter, J.H.Belter and Alexander Roux.
The exhibition falls somewhat short of explaining the economics of this radical revolution in taste, leaving it to the excellent and comprehensive companion volume of essays and supporting materials to provide the clues. Nor does the show successfully undertake an exposition or explanation of the American Gothic movement and its significant impact on architecture, the decorative arts and literature. Like New York itself, Art and the Empire City seems at its best in its display of abundance – whether in objects, furniture, the European art treasures publicly displayed during the period, or costumes worn by ladies of taste and refinement.
For New York was rapidly becoming the Great Emporium– a city of shopping and of shopkeepers rather than the moral capital of new republic, a role more naturally embraced by Puritan Boston or Quaker Philadelphia. Slavery, a divisive issue elsewhere in the nascent United States, did not, initially, trouble the conscience of the Empire City. Even when executing commissions for wealthy Southern planters, New York craftsman and artisans seemed content to leave morality and politics aside. The work of furniture makers such as Duncan Phyfe and Son embodies the elegance of New York taste and the projection of that taste throughout the country. What emerges is a primary commitment to the sanctity of commerce and the power that wealth would yield for the emergent Empire City.
Yet by mid-century it became increasingly hard even for New Yorkers to ignore the central argument that would soon split the country in two. Art and the Empire City traces New York’s struggle with the issue of slavery as articulated by the artistic community, through such works as the Greek Slave by Hiram Powers, depicting a nude, young, Greek maiden held in chains by her Turkish captors in the War for Greek Independence. Seen by thousands of New Yorkers from August 1847 to January 1848 at the newly opened National Academy of Design, Powers’s work caused instant shock, outrage and moral scandal. For the high-minded Horace Greeley, writing in the New-York Daily Tribune, the occasion offered an opportunity for an object lesson in public morality; for the street vendor the Greek Slave was a business opportunity to sell souvenir reproductions in plaster.
By the outbreak of the Civil War, even New York could no longer hide behind the business of business. As Charles Ingham, acting president of the National Academy of Design, reported in May 1861: ‘the great Rebellion has startled society from its prosperity, and war and politics now occupy every mind. No one thinks of the arts, even among the artists, patriotism has superseded painting, and many have laid by the palette and pencil, to shoulder the musket…’.
Art and the Empire City chronicles the physical, economic, social, and intellectual transformation of New York City between 1825 and 1861, as referenced by its artistic transformation – from the primal nobility of the founders of the Hudson River School, such as Thomas Cole, to the mid-century coming of age of American taste and style found in its craftsmanship in silver, porcelain and pottery – which were documented by the vivid new art form of photography, and also celebrated at the New York Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1853-54.
It was only a short space of time since Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky had led the fight to construct the high tariff walls that succeeded in limiting the importation of European luxury goods, particularly of gold and silver. In 1845, with gratitude, an enthusiastic artisan community in New York celebrated Clay’s protectionist contribution with a presentation Vase with Cover displaying the finest craftsmanship that the Empire City could produce. The Crystal Palace Exhibition showcased a new standard of American decorative arts on the cusp of the transition from craft to manufacturing. One of the most spectacular and exuberant displays was the central monument of the United States Pottery Company, Bennington, Vermont. Topped by a parian porcelain Madonna and Child, the towering pedestal base is a three-dimensional advertisement of the diversity of the firm’s craftsmanship in earthenware – from ‘Rockingham and Flint enamel glaze to scroddled ware.
At an ever more frantic pace, New Yorkers busied themselves with the business of making money and things – brokering the riches of the American heartland and trans-shipping the fruit of their craft and industry to the world beyond. By mid century, economic, historical, technological, demographic and cultural forces had transformed the relatively small, yet sophisticated, city of 1825 into a major metropolis.
Not content with the recent attempts to improve the city environment through public amenities such as Frederick Olmsted’s Central Park or the Croton Aqueduct water system, New Yorkers craved the exotic and the Arcadian. Images such as The Heart of the Andes – a monumental masterpiece by Frederic E. Church that made its debut in 1859 before more than 12,000 New Yorkers – addressed this appetite. The New York public had begun to hunger for raw natural majesty, looking to popular artist Frederic E. Church – Thomas Cole’s heir in the Hudson River school – to provide a vision far beyond the realm of empire defined by New York. Church’s awe-inspiring image of a South American Eden provides a dramatic conclusion to the exhibition but foreshadows none of the tensions and conflicts that would rip open the body politic of New York during the Civil War years that lay ahead. Instead, the painting seems but a calculated exercise in extending the bounds of possibility for a people growing ever rich and powerful in their Empire City.