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Artbeat: The Met's New York Exhibit | 2000

A similar kind of armchair travel is available in the final gallery of "Art and the Empire City." Here, alone in a darkened room, is Frederic Edwin Church's monumental painting The Heart of the Andes (1859). This exotic fantasy of South American jungle topped by snowcapped mountains may seem a strange final image for a show about New York, but when you stop and think about it, Vanderlyn's Versailles and Church's Andes are, in their ability to conjure an "elsewhere," quintessentially New York. After all, New York was called the Empire City because of its commercial and conceptual reach. Thomas Cole, laboring in his New York studio, never actually painted New York. The city was a point of departure, not of arrival. Increasingly, leaving was something you could do without stepping off the island. Exotic paintings, foreign-made furniture and finery, cosmopolitan museums like the Metropolitan (founded by, among others, Andes-haunted Frederic Church himself in 1870) brought the whole world right here, to the edge of Central Park. New York writers such as James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving set their stories in the picturesque regions of rural New York, and the settings were painted, in turn, by Cole and his followers. These artworks and tales lured tourists eager to see where the last of the Mohicans slew his deer, and where Rip Van Winkle-like any sleepy New Yorker-awoke to find the whole world changed.

And the Erie Canal? It's in the news again. Since 1996, the federal government has been pushing a "canal corridor initiative" to revitalize the sagging towns strung along the canal from Troy to Buffalo. "Nobody wants to live in a chapter in a history book," HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo told the New York Times in June 2000. Remaking and marketing the canal, according to Cuomo, will promote "tourism, jobs, energy, and optimism." Sound familiar?

Christopher Benfey is a professor of literature at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Degas in New Orleans. "Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861" is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from September 19 through January 7, 2001.

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