When did the city that was so nice they named it twice become, well, The City? A major exhibition opening this month at the Metropolitan looks back at what made New York New York.
Nikolas Koenig

The last time I visited New York, it seemed as if the artist Christo had been there before me, wrapping the partially restored lobby of my hotel with drop cloths, enveloping Times Square in cheap plywood, draping the Metropolitan Museum with scaffolding. Not for the first time I found myself wondering, When will New York be finished? After Frank Gehry builds his baby Bilbao on the Hudson? After there's a new Yankee Stadium on the river? And then I had another, less grumpy thought. When did New York start? Just how far back in time could you travel and still feel that, yes, you're in New York?

This fall the Metropolitan Museum is venturing an ambitious answer to that question in the form of "Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861." The exhibition is a sprawling survey of more than 300 varied works-paintings and sculpture, of course, but also ball gowns and bracelets, daguerreotypes and writing desks, illustrated books and decorative vases. The aim is to give a feel for what life was like in New York during the period immediately preceding the upheaval of the Civil War. The show effectively illustrates how New York went from a shabby settlement still smarting from British occupation during the Revolutionary War to the biggest and baddest, cockiest and kookiest, city in the Western Hemisphere. "The seeds of the Big Apple," a Met staffer told me, "were planted in 1825."

That was the year the Erie Canal, the brainchild of Governor DeWitt Clinton, was completed, linking New York City with Lake Erie and the trade networks to the west. That was the year Samuel F. B. Morse painted his magisterial portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette (the inaugural image of the Met show), the Revolutionary hero who had come to witness the opening of the canal. It was also the year the English-born landscape painter Thomas Cole arrived in Manhattan and spearheaded what became known as the Hudson River school of painting.

One of the grand and compelling arguments of the Met exhibition is that, together, business and art transfigured the American landscape. Nowhere was this more evident than in the commercial hothouse of New York, whose fertile soil for art sometimes made up in vigor what it lacked in aesthetic distinction. The show could easily have been called "Art and the Rise of Capitalism," so intimately intertwined were the city's economic and sometimes awkward cultural growth. One reason that the second quarter of the 19th century is relatively neglected by scholars in American art is precisely the marriage-a quarrelsome, vulgar marriage-of business and art, and the sheer difficulty of telling, at any given time, which was which. (Some would argue that things aren't all that different today.) A museum like the Metropolitan, accustomed to selecting only the very best in high art, has to go slumming a bit when it digs into the 1820's and 30's. We're talking about the very finest mahogany veneer with "a penciled inscription by its maker," the most exquisite silver plate or gilded stenciling. And while there were collectors on the scene sophisticated enough to purchase a painting by J.M.W. Turner (Staffa, Fingal's Cave, 1832), there were also con men selling "old master" paintings "late of Florence."

Broadway, with P. T. Barnum on one side of the street and Mathew Brady on the other, was, as is well known, the great arcade of the art of business and the business of art. Barnum and Brady could have called their operations DreamWorks, dealing as they did in fantasy and spectacle. Barnum not only marketed freaks and circus acts, but also lured Jenny Lind, the "Swedish Nightingale," to sing her way across the United States in 1850 for $150,000 plus expenses. Furniture makers took note of her popularity, producing Jenny Lind sewing chairs and (shades of Martha Stewart) home-furnishing lines. A grateful Jenny gave generously to New York charities and organizations, including $3,000 to the fire department. The firemen's homage to this much-loved figure is not forgotten in this exhibition. They presented Jenny with a specially bound set of Audubon's seven-volume Birds of America (for the Nightingale, get it?), as well as an ornate rosewood bookcase topped by two allegorical figures representing Music and Charity.

Brady was no less brash than Barnum, and he had a brand-new product to market. The Frenchman Daguerre had invented the photograph in 1839, but he gave up on ever making portraits with it. Exposure times were so long that you had to be asleep or dead to really look your best in a daguerreotype. Then that versatile genius Samuel Morse-painter (of other major works besides the Lafayette portrait), New York University professor, and inventor of the telegraph, to whom we owe SOS and the rest of the Morse code-figured out a way to speed up the exposure time.

Soon there were daguerreotype studios lining both sides of Broadway. (Fittingly, a whole gallery in the Met is devoted to early photography.) And no one had a clearer sense than Brady of the American hunger for faces-for those of celebrities ("illustrious Americans," as Brady called them) or ordinary citizens like themselves.

Walt Whitman, the quintessential New York poet, had his picture taken immediately and often, and made sure that it graced his books, which he then reviewed favorably and anonymously. (The beatific "Christ likeness" of Whitman, taken around the time Leaves of Grass appeared in 1855, is included in the Met show, as is the first edition of Leaves.) Whitman's contemporary Herman Melville traded in the Great White Whale for the Great White Way, working as an official in the Custom House downtown. If Melville offered a darker vision of New York in his Wall Street fable "Bartleby," his reticent scrivener still sounds like a headstrong New Yorker, with his repeated retort to every request: "I would prefer not to."

OTHER AMERICAN CITIES HAD GEOGRAPHICAL ADVANTAGES advantages and great expectations (buttoned-up Boston and laid-back New Orleans among them), but New York had the edge, in every sense of the word. Conditions that would have been intolerable elsewhere-large crowds, ear-shattering noise, incessant construction-were accepted (and are still accepted) as part and parcel of just another ordinary day in New York.

"A city of perpetual ruin and repair," one visitor called it. This constant state of incompleteness has always been part of the genius of the city. If New York were ever finished, well, it just might be finished.

That doesn't mean, of course, that New Yorkers never need to escape, now and then, from what Henry James called their "long, shrill city." Early on, it was possible simply to move northward, to the rural edges of town where chickens and pigs often wandered among the traffic. When the "murmur of trade had become a mighty uproar" in lower Manhattan, the doctor and his daughter at the heart of James's Washington Square found refuge in that graceful neighborhood at the base of Fifth Avenue, "the ideal of quiet and of genteel retirement, in 1835." Many of the uniform red-brick town houses on the northern side of the square are now offices for New York University. But you can still get a feel for just how genteel life in New York could be during the 1830's by visiting the Merchant's House Museum at 29 East Fourth Street, a perfect time capsule with its faux marble entryway and Ionic columns dividing the double parlor.

When New Yorkers realized that the "mighty uproar" would eventually stretch right to the northern tip of Manhattan, they wisely allowed for Central Park to take up 843 wooded and grassy acres in the middle. "What we want to gain," wrote co-designer Frederick Law Olmsted, "is tranquillity and rest to the mind." Work on Central Park began in 1856, before the city had grown as far as the park's southern edge at 59th Street. The Metropolitan show includes Olmsted's visual proposal for the park, consisting of Brady's photographs of the swamps and debris that preceded construction juxtaposed with Calvert Vaux's lush oil-sketch fantasies of what these same sites would eventually look like. It is fitting that the rear windows of the Metropolitan Museum face out on the grassy knolls and wooded paths of this greatest of all New York designs.

Escape on a more extreme scale could be found as early as the 1820's, downtown, in a special rotunda built to house John Vanderlyn's amazing circular panorama of the gardens and palace at Versailles. A viewer standing in the center of the panorama-now in the Met's permanent collection, and part of this exhibition-was immediately transported to the playground of Louis XIV.

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.