Portraits of the street sellers of 1840 New York

Nicolino Calyo had a peripatetic journey to New York City. Born in Naples in 1799, this classically trained painter fled political rebellions there and in Spain before landing in Baltimore and then in New York City.

In Gotham, his dramatic scenes of the Great Fire of 1835 and narrative landscapes of the Manhattan waterfront made his name as an exiled European artist.

But Calyo also earned notoriety for a very different kind of painting: street portraits. In 1840, he published more than 100 watercolors he titled “Cries of New York” that depicted the tradesmen, vendors, laborers, and peddlers who plied Manhattan’s grimy streets at the time by cart, wagon, and foot.

Calyo’s New York was the pre-Civil War city of oyster stands, hot corn sellers, “market women,” newsboys and match boys, charcoal-heated homes, ice sold out of carts, wagon delivery of eggs and butter, and young attractive women selling strawberries from baskets.

There’s no text beneath their portraits, which exude a cheeky kind of confidence. We’re left to imagine what their lives were like at a time when slavery had recently been fully outlawed (in 1827, to be exact) and a wave of immigrants from Germany and Ireland were crowding into tenant houses—soon to be known as tenements—in Downtown neighborhoods.

The people in his watercolors are all New Yorkers, but this genre depicting the “cries” of people on city streets originated in Europe in the early 16th century, explains Steven H. Jaffe in a rich and astute article on Calyo’s portraits, published in the Museum of the City of New York’s City Courant in 2017.

MCNY has some of Calyo’s portraits in its collection, as does the New-York Historical Society and the Brooklyn Museum. “Calyo was never a particularly sophisticated painter; his landscapes, faces, and human figures often approach the formulaic quality of folk art or caricature,” wrote Jaffe.

“But his keen eye, the charm and color of his style, and his sensitivity to the urban scene have left us with images that evoke New York’s political culture during the Jacksonian era—the so-called ‘Age of the Common Man’—when universal suffrage for white men and an expanding urban economy bred a popular faith in the abilities and dignity of ordinary working- and middle-class city dwellers.”

[Top image: Flickr; second image: Brooklyn Museum; third image: MCNY 8742; fourth image: unknown; fifth image: MCNY 55.6.12; sixth image: MCNY 55.6.2; seventh and eighth images: Yale Museum of Art]

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One Response to “Portraits of the street sellers of 1840 New York”

  1. Shayne Davidson Says:

    I wonder what these folks would think if they could see New York City today.

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