NICOLINO CALYO (1799-1884)
Passaic Falls in New Jersey, about 1835-40
Gouache on paper, 6 3/8 x 8 7/8 in.
Inscribed (at bottom center): Passaic Falls, in New Jersey.
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.