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NICOLINO CALYO (1799-1884)
Wigwams of Indians in Canada
Gouache on paper, 6 3/8 x 8 7/8 in.
Inscribed (at bottom center): Wigwam of Indians, in Canada.
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, exh. 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 eighteeenth-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 , exh. 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 present work is one of a series of small-size gouaches that gives evidence of a trip that the artist made to the Canada-New York border. Wigwam of Indians, in Canada is a rarity in the Calyo oeuvre, a close-up landscape view with only the faintest glimpse of sky. (The light source for the image comes from the upper left-hand corner shining faintly through the trees.) The artist seems to have two major concerns here: an idyllic depiction of an interior northern forest landscape and a study of the customs and costume of the Canadian Indians. The time of year is autumn, just at the point that the leaves have begun to color, but before they fall. The forest is still leafy, but the branches at left and right show a blaze of orange that heralds the changing season.
The close study of the Indians and their settlement is a reminder of Calyo's work in Cries of New York (Museum of the City of New York), where he studied urban types and their environment. The figures, boats, and homes in Wigwam of Indians in Canada are not afterthoughts to people a landscape, but are, in fact, subjects themselves for the artist's careful consideration. The viewer is eavesdropping here on what appears to be a small domestic settlement on the banks of a stream.
Despite the designation in the title of a singular "Wigwam," referring to the carefully detailed structure in the right center of the picture illuminated by the top-left light source, there are at least three similar dwellings in the background shadows. These dwellings seem to conform more to the definition of the conical than to the arched construction of the wigwam, although tepees are associated with plains indians, while wigwams were customary in the Great Lakes area and eastward.
Two standing Indians are engaged in conversation with a figure seated in front of the wigwam. Calyo spends considerable care in portraying the Indians' costumes. The seated person is wearing a light-colored cloak with decoration around the shoulders and a fur trim around the circumference of the lower border. Blue leggings with a decorated bottom border end above shoes or boots. The standing figure dressed in brown wears a woven backslung basket, while the other standing figure wears a blue outer garment richly bordered with bands of brightly colored decoration, perhaps applique, beading or embroidery. Both of the standing figures have fringed leggings.
Two more standing figures are faintly visible in the interior of a dark-roofed shelter. Calyo's view here of the North American native is romantic and positive. Their forest home is benevolent, with sufficient abundance of all the material necessities of life. Their homes, clothing and birch bark canoe are constructed with impressive attention to workmanship, and distinguished by a natural grace of design born of a simple functional imperative. With their amber-red complexions and luxuriant long, dark hair, they are attractive people who appear to be living together in peace and harmony. Wigwam of Indians, in Canada relates in subject matter two other similar-sized works (also in the collection of Hirschl & Adler Galleries), The Outlet of Niagara River, Lake Ontario in the Distance Niagara Falls from the Ferry.