Enfilade

Exhibition | Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700–1860

Posted in exhibitions, lectures (to attend) by Editor on February 11, 2016

Portraits hero

From left to right: John Trumball, Portrait of Alexander Hamilton, ca. 1804–08 (Museum of the City of New York, 72.31.3);  Nicholas Biddle Kittell, Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Henry Augustus Carter, ca. 1845 (Museum of the City of New York, 62.234.12); and George Peter Alexander Healy, Portrait of Caroline Slidell Perry Belmont (Mrs. August Belmont, Sr.), ca. 1855 (Museum of the City of New York, 51.317).

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Press release for the exhibition now on view at MCNY:

Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700–1860
Museum of the City of New York, 5 February — 18 November 2016

Curated by Bruce Weber

The Museum of the City of New York presents Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700–1860, an ensemble of iconic New Yorkers presented by intricate and elegant portraits, which were commissioned as status symbols and painted by the very best artists a young nation had to offer. The exhibition opened to the public on Friday, February 5, 2016.

Visitors can see familiar figures, such as the renowned John Trumbull portrait of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the image on our ten-dollar bill, and can also come face-to-face with New Yorkers like Richard Varick, of Varick Street in Greenwich Village, and the Brooks family, of Brooks Brothers fame, whose names are part of the city’s fabric but whose stories remain untold to a broad audience. This unique exhibition draws from the City Museum’s permanent collection to reveal the evolution of a dynamic city through its leading merchants, politicians and patrons, as well as the development of portraiture itself, one of New York’s oldest visual art forms.

“New York City’s distinctive character and unique personality have always come from its citizens,” said Whitney Donhauser, Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum of the City of New York. “This exhibition explores over 150 years of city life through the lives of many of history’s most celebrated New Yorkers, offering visitors an intensely engaging and deeply personal interaction with the past.”

Picturing Prestige relies on the people who shaped New York City in its formative years to tell the story of how the city grew from its colonial foundations through the Revolutionary War and blossomed into a mercantile powerhouse in the mid-19th century. The namesakes of Varick and McDougal Streets in Greenwich Village are brought to life by centuries-old paintings of Richard Varick and Alexander McDougall. Brooks Brothers is a household name in present-day America, and Picturing Prestige will display the early Brooks family in the light they wished to be shown in their own time.

The exhibition is also a study in the art of portraiture and New York City’s place as an artistic hub, showcasing over 40 oil paintings to go along with a dozen miniatures—small portraits kept as keepsakes, which were the original version of family wallet photos. The show is organized in three sections that demonstrate not only the growth and transformation of the city itself, but also the changing nature of portraiture as an art form, the city’s emergence as an artistic center, and the ways in which the city’s elite viewed itself over time:

• Colonial Foundations, 1700–1775
• Young Nationhood, 1777–1815
• The City Rises, 1815–1860

The scope of the exhibition, curated by Bruce Weber, City Museum Curator of Paintings and Sculpture, is made possible by the wealth of the City Museum’s permanent collection, offering portraits of iconic New Yorkers as painted by the leading artists of their respective generations. The artists themselves reveal nearly as much history as their subjects do, from the Duyckinck family demonstrating that the best painters in America in the 17th century were not from America, to John Singleton Copley personifying the rise of fine art in this country over one hundred years later.

“The portraits in this exhibition are works of art in and of themselves, but they are also windows into the lives and times of legendary New Yorkers,” added Weber. “In thinking about who commissioned these paintings and the artists who brought their subjects to life, we can tell the story of a city emerging from the throes of revolution to lead a young nation towards its rightful place at the vanguard of the artistic world. Today, New York City’s role as a cultural center is undisputed. Picturing Prestige helps explain how we got there.”

The conservation of many of the works and their related frames featured in Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700–1860 was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, as was digital photography and cataloguing of many of the paintings.

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From MCNY:

Hamilton and Friends: Portraiture in Early New York
Museum of the City of New York, Thursday, 11 February 2016, 6:30 pm

Alexander Hamilton was a man of many faces: politician, economist, revolutionary—and rumored philanderer. After he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr in 1804, Hamilton’s widow, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, worked tirelessly to defend her husband’s reputation. Today we are familiar with likenesses of Alexander Hamilton—including one that is on the ten dollar bill. This panel will explore how portraiture served in the decades after the American Revolution as a critical tool in shaping and canonizing the public image of leaders and notables. Join us for a conversation about how the Hamiltons and other members of the colonial New York elite commissioned portraits to use both as status symbols and a means to craft their public image. This program delves into the themes of our exhibition Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700–1860.

William H. Gerdts, Professor Emeritus of Art History, CUNY Graduate Center
David Jaffee, Professor and Head of New Media Research, Bard Graduate Center
Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, Alice Pratt Brown Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Brett Palfreyman, Assistant Professor, History Department, Wagner College
Bruce Weber (moderator), Museum’s Curator of Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700–1860

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