The Museum of the City of New York is presenting a new exhibit, “Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700-1860,” an ensemble of iconic New Yorkers presented through portraits, which were commissioned as status symbols and painted by the very best artists a young nation had to offer.
Visitors will see figures such as the renowned John Trumbull portrait of Alexander Hamilton that inspired the image on the U.S. $10 bill, and will 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 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” will look to 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 will be brought to life by centuries-old paintings of Richard Varick and Alexander McDougall.
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.
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 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.
The Museum of the City of New York was founded in 1923 as a private, nonprofit corporation. To learn more visit MCNY’s website here.
Portrait by John Trumbull provided by MCNY.