Date Thesis Awarded


Access Type

Honors Thesis -- Access Restricted On-Campus Only

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)


Art and Art History


Susan Webster

Committee Members

Alan Braddock

Melvin Ely


This paper examines the negotiation of visual culture and public space by African Americans in antebellum New York through the nineteenth-century painting Servants at a Pump by Italian-American artist Nicolino Calyo. During the nineteenth century, artistic modes of expression and social codes regarding the use of public green space sought to limit the representation and visibility of racial minorities. In visual culture, the mode of genre painting attempted to order and confine certain groups of people. At the same time, mandated and informal laws excluded African Americans and people of low socioeconomic classes from participating in the growing trend of public parks. These overarching conventions segmented the population and exacerbated social divides. Nicolino Calyo’s painting Servants at a Pump from 1840 engages with genre painting techniques and contemporary park politics but defies the usual oppressive conventions. A closer look at this painting, in the context of contemporary social history and Calyo’s larger oeuvre, suggests a more nuanced representation of urban ecology. Calyo’s subjects—several African American laborers—appear to resist social and political norms as they assert themselves in public space. In addition, Calyo’s meticulous detailing of the surrounding setting grounds the scene in real history and provides a more concrete description of life in antebellum New York. Ultimately, this painting reflects the unique blend of Old World techniques and ideologies with stories of burgeoning independence and identity development present in antebellum American society.

On-Campus Access Only