Nicolino Calyo's career reflects a restless spirit of enterprise and adventure. Descended in the line of the Viscontes di Calyo of Calabria, the artist was the son of a Neapolitan army officer. (For a brief biographical sketch of the artist see Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art, exhib. cat. , pp. 299-301 no. 257.) Calyo received formal training in art at the Naples Academy. His career took shape amidst the backdrop of the political turbulence of early nineteenth-century Italy, Spain, and France. He fled Naples after choosing the losing side in struggles of 1820-21, and, by 1829, was part of a community of Italian exiles in Malta. This was the keynote of a peripatetic life that saw the artist travel through Europe, to America, to Europe again, and back to America.
Paradoxically, Calyo’s stock-in-trade was close observation of people and places, meticulously rendered in the precise topographical tradition of his fellow countrymen, the eighteenth-century
vedute painters Antonio Canale (called Canaletto) and Francesco Guardi. In search of artistic opportunity and in pursuit of a living, Calyo left Malta, and, by 1834, was in Baltimore, Maryland. He advertised his skills in the April 16, 1835 edition of the Baltimore American, offering "remarkable views executed from drawings taken on the spot by himself, . . . in which no pains or any resource of his art has been neglected, to render them accurate in every particular" (as quoted in The Art Gallery and The Gallery of the School of Architecture, University of Maryland, College Park, 350 Years of Art & Architecture in Maryland, exhib. cat. , p. 35). Favoring gouache on paper as his medium, Calyo rendered faithful visual images of familiar locales executed with a degree of skill and polish that was second nature for European academically-trained artists. Indeed, it was the search for this graceful fluency that made American artists eager to travel to Europe and that led American patrons to seek out the works of ambitious newcomers.
On June 16, 1835, the Baltimore Republican reported that Calyo was on his way north to Philadelphia and New York to paint views of those cities. Calyo arrived in New York, by way of Philadelphia, just in time for the great fire of December 1835, which destroyed much of the downtown business district. He sketched the fire as it burned, producing a series of gouaches that combined his sophisticated European painting style with the truth and urgency of on-the-spot observation. Two of his images were given broad currency when William James Bennett reproduced them in aquatint. The New-York Historical Society owns two large Calyo gouaches of the fire, and two others, formerly in the Middendorf Collection, are now in the collection of Hirschl & Adler Galleries. From 1838 until 1855, Calyo listed himself variously in the New York City directories as a painter, a portrait painter, and as an art instructor, singly, and in partnership with his sons, John (1818-1893) and later, the younger Hannibal (1835-1883). Calyo also attracted notice for a series of scenes and characters from the streets of New York, called Cries of New York. These works, which were later published as prints, participate in a time-honored European genre tradition. Calyo’s New York home became a gathering place for European exiles, including Napoleon III. Between 1847 and 1852 Calyo exhibited scenes from the Mexican War and traveled from Boston to New Orleans with his forty-foot panorama of the Connecticut River. Later, he spent time in Spain as court painter to Queen Maria Christina, the result of his continuing European connections, but he was back in America by 1874, where he remained until his death.
The Passaic River rises in the hills just south of Morristown, New Jersey, marking a serpentine eighty-mile course before it empties into Newark Bay. It flows north-northeast to Paterson, where it falls seventy feet in a spectacular cataract before continuing south through Passaic and Newark. William Gerdts, in Painting and Sculpture in New Jersey (1964, pp. 51-2), describes the falls as:
the most important [landscape] subject in New Jersey during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. . . . The Passaic Falls remained a popular spot, particularly during the romantic period. Indeed, newspapers, periodicals, and gift books contain many accounts of visits to the Falls, sentimental poems written about them or about a loved one visiting the Falls, or even, occasionally, in memory of one who perished in the waters of the Falls — usually intentionally. . . . Waterfalls . . . were popular among travelers in the period and the Passaic Falls were only surpassed by Niagara Falls and Trenton Falls near Utica in popularity.
The falls attracted many artists and drew visitors from New York City in search of a scenic excursion in the nearby countryside.
Passaic Falls in New Jersey is one of a series of cabinet-size gouaches from Calyo’s hand that explore, with gem-like clarity, the same artistic and iconographic concerns that characterize his larger views. In the present work Calyo assumes his preferred observation point, the far shore of a body of water offering a wide-angle or panoramic view of the avowed subject of the composition. The foreground, then, generally serves as an opportunity for the artist to portray a genre or narrative scene. This work, however, rings an amusing variation on the favorite Calyo formula. Calyo had visited Niagara Falls and produced a number of views of that natural wonder. In truth, he does not seem very impressed, here, with the falls at Passaic. While the artist and viewer are positioned slightly downstream on a quiet bank of the river, the attention in the work is directed to the wall of rock that marks the high elevation. Two miniature figures, a male and female, stand on one side of the narrow chasm cut through the rock by the river. They are gesturing in the direction of an arched bridge over the chasm, toward a welcoming cliffside hostelry on the other side. The falls are visible beneath the bridge and within the chasm — the focus of attention neither of the touring couple, nor apparently Calyo. Here, then, is Passaic Falls in context: a pleasant enough local sight, in a pleasant enough setting, on a pleasant enough day.
While there is no reason to doubt Calyo’s veracity, we can understand his essentially romantic approach with some brief history of the area and the recorded observation of another contemporary visitor. Although the town of Passaic, downstream from the Falls, was not incorporated until 1851, the site had been settled by Dutch traders in 1674. Paterson, the city on the Falls, is of more recent vintage. It was founded by Alexander Hamilton in 1791, who understood the economic potential of the Passaic River's water power, and intended an industrial community. Hamilton’s vision bore fruit. By 1794 there was cotton spinning in Paterson, and, in 1828, the cotton industry experienced its first strike. In 1842, Paterson was the site of the construction of the first silk-weaving loom built in America.
Philip Hone, a wealthy New Yorker, former Mayor of the City, and indefatigable diarist, recorded his account of a visit to the area on May 19, 1832:
This was the day agreed upon for a party of pleasure to Paterson. We had a charming party in open barouches, gigs, and some on horseback. We ordered dinner at Van Antwerp’s Tavern and went off to visit the Falls. Here we spent a couple of hours delightfully. There is a house of entertainment and other devices near the falls, rendering them easy of access, but destroying the natural beauty of the scene. We then returned to Mr. Van Antwerp’s, a miserable concern in the busiest part of this cotton spinning dirty village, which is no longer the rural retreat it formerly was. Green trees have given place to brown stone walls, and the singing of birds to the everlasting noise of spinning jennies and power looms (Allen Nevins, ed., The Diary of Philip Hone, 1828-1851 [reprint ed. 1970], p. 62).
Calyo’s view is all about a pretty falls, set in a rural retreat, well-fortified with man-made comfort. Fluffy clouds drift across a placid sky. Smoke, coming from the chimney of the inn whose welcoming gate greets visitors as they step off the bridge, promises a cozy hearth and warm welcome.