New Yorkers before selfies: Portrait exhibition at City Museum

Before New York was a booming metropolis it was a small but thriving port city on the tip of Manhattan. As it developed, many families earned fortunes and a new nobility was established in the Americas as a result.

“Picturing Prestige: New York Portraits, 1700-1860” captures New York’s early elites while paying homage to the leading artists of their respective eras. The exhibition spansthe colonial period to the revolutionary era and the decades after through more than 40 oil paintings.

During the early periods of America, wealthy families sought out the best artists for their portraits. “It is fascinating to think of this exhibition in the context of how conscious people are today about curating their own image online and on social media,” said Whitney Donhauser, director of the Museum of the City of New York. “‘Picturing Prestige’ shows us that New York’s most prominent citizens had those same concerns going back hundreds of years, and that no matter how different these elegantly framed oil paintings may seem from posts on Facebook or Instagram, their inspiration remains strikingly similar.”

While portraits from colonial New York illustrate a few opulent New York families, those from post-revolution America show off political figures that emerged in the revolution. A life-size portrait of George Washington is its centerpiece.

By the 19th century, New York portraiture became a school of art in its own right. Artists remained in New York to study, many under the wings of their contemporaries, instead of studying abroad in Europe.

Two notables: William Sidney Mount and his brother Shepard Alonzo Mount, who were commissioned by some of New York’s wealthiest families, including the Brooks family that went on to establish the Brooks Brothers clothing line.


“Picturing Prestige: New York portraits, 1700-1860” on show now through early October.

Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave., mcny.org, 212-534-1672

Open daily 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Suggested admission: $14 adults, $10 students & seniors, 19 and under FREE