NEW YORK -- Even 141 years ago, New York City was the most conceited city in the hemisphere.
Consider the landmark 1859 map that depicts a fish-eye view of New York Harbor as nothing less than the entire globe of the earth. This lithograph of Gotham as the hub of the world is a startling forerunner of that iconic, much-copied New Yorker cover by Saul Steinberg in 1976, an illustration that portrayed the city as the self-absorbed epicenter of all that matters.
The 19th-century lithograph, by John Bachmann, an artist and publisher, is presented in "Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861," an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It highlights the era when New York grew exponentially from a promising provincial port city to the largest metropolis in the Western Hemisphere, the locus of American trade, culture and the arts.
Or, as John K. Howat, chairman of the department of American art at the museum, puts it, when "New York City became the center of all things." The exhibition features 301 paintings, sculptures, lithographs, photographs and decorative objects from 84 lenders in the United States and Europe.
If by its very title the presentation seems an exercise in New York chauvinism, the show "is, unrepentantly, a New York event," said Philippe de Montebello, the Met's director, "because it was during that four-decade period that New York became acknowledged as the great city in America and a great capital of the world."
As for the Bachmann lithograph of New York City as a globe, it is but one of a chronological array of images and maps in the exhibition "that show the progression from the local to the global," Catherine Hoover Voorsanger, an associate curator at the Met and the project director of the show, said. Conventional maps and street-level views yield to bird's-eye views from towers like the steeple of St. Paul's Church on Broadway in 1848.
By 1855, there was a panorama of the city from the 350-foot wooden tower of the Latting Observatory on West 43rd Street. Ultimately, there are views from balloons, and then the astronaut's-eye lithograph by Bachmann in 1859.
"It is an image that says, if you live in New York you can command the entire world," said Dell Upton, professor of architectural history at the University of California at Berkeley.
Voorsanger said that putting together the exhibition, the first comprehensive investigation of the era, was "a detective story on a massive scale, trying to discover how New York became the city we know today." The curators attempted to solve the mystery by conducting five years of research into the spirit of the time, including page-by-page surveys of thousands of magazines ranging from the New York Mirror to Godey's Lady's Book. Then curators traveled the country to track down long-lost trophies so they could be returned to Manhattan.
The works they assembled illuminate the economic, cultural and artistic ferment that drove New York to prominence, starting in 1825, the year the city celebrated the completion of the Erie Canal. The show ends with the firing on Fort Sumter that ushered in the Civil War, when New York was poised to become a world city on a par with London and Paris.
"This is a period that all historians, not just art historians, have ignored," Upton said.
Some of the works have been rescued from obscurity, like the imposing 8-foot-by-5-foot, full-length portrait of the Marquis de Lafayette, dating from 1825-1826. He posed during his triumphant return to America to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. One of the most famous portraits of its day, it was painted by Samuel F.B. Morse (yes, the inventor of the telegraph).
For ages it hung to the right of the speaker's rostrum in the higher reaches of the City Council chamber, less visible to art lovers than to the protesters who periodically rained abuse on Council members from the balcony.
Other objects in the show have newly come to light, like a long-lost rosewood sofa and two armchairs, made in Manhattan by the Prussian-born cabinetmaker Julius Dessoir. The suite of furniture was so celebrated in 1853 that it was exhibited in Manhattan at the first American world's fair "These are masterpieces of American furniture-making of the period, as good as it gets in Europe or America," said Voorsanger, who ran them to ground in a collector's home in West Orange, N.J.
Two other important finds, original 1857 presentation boards for Central Park, were unearthed in the city's Municipal Archives. Created by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, the park's designers, they feature photographs by Mathew Brady and oil paintings by Vaux. They were used in 19th-century pitch-sessions "to sell people on the idea of creating a park that could be the lungs of the city," Howat said.