Exhibitions: Picturing Place: Francis Guy's Brooklyn, 1820

Nicolino V. Calyo: The Butter and Milk Man

Nicolino V. Calyo (American, born Italy, 1799–1884). The Butter and Milk Man, 1840s. Watercolor over graphite on paper. Brooklyn Museum, Purchased with funds given by Mr. and Mrs. Leonard L. Milberg, 1990.16.

The Italian-born Nicolino Calyo settled in New York City in the 1830s, where he made a series of images of local tradespeople. African Americans played a crucial role in the economies of New York and Brooklyn, typically working as street vendors, chimney sweeps, domestic servants, farmhands, and dockworkers. Prior to 1827, when slavery was abolished in New York State, the black labor force included enslaved and free individuals (a system of gradual emancipation was enacted in 1799). In 1790, 40 percent of households in Kings County owned slaves—the highest percentage in the nation. By 1820, the county had a population of 9,821 whites, 882 enslaved blacks, and 879 free blacks. Some of the African Americans depicted in Francis Guy's paintings of Brooklyn were probably enslaved, while several of the white residents were slaveholders.

In art of this period, African Americans regularly appear as stereotypes, performing manual labor or providing comic relief (note the boy who has fallen on the ice in front of the water pump in Guy's paintings). Such imagery, consistent with racial prejudices of the day, ignores the myriad contributions and vital community lives of blacks. In Brooklyn African Americans established the African School in 1815 and the African Wesleyan Methodist Episcopal Church (later Bridge Street Church) in 1819, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad. By the time of Calyo's painting, Brooklyn's historic independent black community, Weeksville, had also been founded.