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Nicolino Calyo (1799–1884)

Fairmount Waterworks, Philadelphia

APG 8248

c. 1835–40


Fairmount Waterworks, Philadelphia
Gouache on paper, 12 x 19 1/2 in.
Painted about 1835–40

RECORDED: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia: Three Centuries of American Art, exhib. cat., (1976), pp. 299–300

Between 1819 and 1822 the city of Philadelphia dammed the Schuylkill to build the Fairmount Water Works, intended to insure a clean water supply to the growing town. In 1844, the municipality began to acquire the estates along the river bank in order to guarantee the purity of its water supply. The park grew by accrual and, in 1867, was officially established by the Pennsylvania State Legislature. Celebrated for its charming gardens, dams, reservoirs, turning waterwheels, and classically inspired buildings, the Fairmount Waterworks was a favorite spot among Philadelphians for strolling and admiring the scenery along the river. The facility, including the buildings, the machinery, the distribution system, and the surrounding gardens, was largely designed by the engineer Frederick C. Graff (1774–1847) and constructed over a period of about forty years, beginning in 1812. Since he had served as the assistant to architect and engineer Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820), it is not surprising that Graff’s designs exhibit the direct influence of his mentor’s Neo-Classical style. The machinery of the waterworks was housed in structures based on Greek prototypes that were considered attractive and harmonious to their surroundings.

Calyo’s view of the Waterworks is from approximately the same vantage point as that used by Thomas Birch in his famous painting from 1821, The Fairmount Waterworks (The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, bequest of the Charles Graff Estate; see Jane Mork Gibson, "The Fairmount Waterworks," in Bulletin: Philadelphia Museum of Art 84 [Summer 1988], p. 25 illus. in color). Like Birch before him, Calyo chose the prospect afforded by the western approach to the Upper Ferry Bridge, which crossed the Schuylkill a few hundred feet downstream of the reservoirs, the falls, and the engine (pump) house. The panorama encompasses, from west to east: the lockskeeper’s house and the canal of the Schuylkill Navigation Company; the low dam across the river; the white gazebo, erected in 1835 on the head pier as part of the general beautification of the Waterworks district; and the Neo-Classical complex of engine house, mill house, and outbuildings designed by Frederick Graff.

Calyo executed at least one larger view of the Waterworks from the same location (1835–36, Mellon Bank Corporation, Pittsburgh; see Gibson op. cit., p. 29 illus. in color). In both views, Calyo offers a hint of the landscaping program around the Waterworks and on the Fairmount hillside—the latter seen in the distance in the present gouache. The beautification project of the Fairmount Waterworks district commenced in 1829, once plans for industrial development of the area were dashed. By 1835, the rocky site had been transformed by paved promenades, dressed stone retaining walls, and elegantly classical balustrades into a picturesque acropolis. Frances Trollope praised the Waterworks after her 1830 visit to Philadelphia: "But interesting as [the waterworks] machinery is, Fair Mount would not be so attractive had it not something else to offer. It is, in truth, one of the very prettiest spots the eye can look upon. A broad [weir] is thrown across the Schuylkill, which produces the sound and look of a cascade. The works themselves are enclosed in a simple but very handsome building of freestone, which has an extended front opening upon a terrace, which overhangs the river" (Frances Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans [1832], as quoted in Gibson, p. 28).

Charles Dickens also gave Fairmount high marks after his 1840 visit to Philadelphia: "The Water-works, which are on a height near the city, are no less ornamental than useful, being tastefully laid out as a public garden, and kept in the best and neatest order. The river is dammed at this point, and forced by its own power into certain high tanks or reservoirs, whence the whole city, to the top stories of the houses, is supplied at a very trifling expense (Charles Dickens, American Notes for General Circulation [1842], as quoted in Gibson, pp. 28–29).

Given Nicolino Calyo’s obvious affinity for urbane views of American cities (see, for instance, his series of views of New York City), it is not at all surprising that he would have been drawn to this most perfect setting on the banks of the Schuylkill—a self-conscious bit of historical artifact meant to rival the best that Europe could offer—like a moth to a flame. Calyo, the artistic equivalent of Trollope or Dickens, took obvious delight in recording this picturesque combination of industry, nature, and civilization, and achieved masterful results.

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