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David Gilmour Blythe

(1815—1865)


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(1815–65).

Painter. His frequently satirical genre scenes acknowledge darker realities than were normally apparent in antebellum views of American life. A resident of Pittsburgh during his most productive years, he usually portrayed urban settings and inhabitants, instead of the rural subjects more popular among genre painters. Turning his eye on impoverished losers in an industrializing economy, he often pessimistically rendered them as depraved and irredeemable. His intermittent humor is sardonic and even bitter, far removed from the geniality and optimism of most contemporary art. This bleak outlook may in part have reflected the social and psychological marginality that marked his isolated, alcoholic existence. Blythe's technical skills remained limited, and he often adapted imagery from popular culture. Some of his paintings, while effective as social commentary, rely on caricatural figures and odd mixtures of realistic and symbolic elements. Perhaps only the political cartoons of Harper's Weekly illustrator Thomas Nast (1840–1902) more effectively skewered the era's corruption, greed, and stupidity. Yet Blythe's occasional tributes to the humanity of the oppressed bear comparison to paintings by his French contemporary Honoré Daumier. Born in Wellsville, Ohio, Blythe grew up in that rough frontier area on the Ohio River, about forty miles downstream from Pittsburgh. Apprenticed as a teenager to a Pittsburgh woodworker, he learned carpentry and woodcarving. After a period of wandering, in 1837 he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served in the Caribbean, in the Gulf of Mexico, and along the eastern seaboard. Following discharge in 1840, he became an itinerant portrait painter in eastern Ohio. After about six years, he landed in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, about forty miles south of Pittsburgh. There he continued to paint portraits, started his genre work, carved a monumental wood statue of the Marquis de Lafayette (1847–48) to crown the county courthouse dome, and painted an Allegheny Mountains panorama (lost; 1850–51), which he took on tour. After 1850 another period of itinerancy followed, but in 1856 he settled permanently in Pittsburgh. Nearly all his significant work dates to the nine years he lived there. Blythe's reputation was entirely local. Only one of his paintings circulated as a print, he apparently had almost no contact with New York or other eastern cultural centers, and after his death he was virtually forgotten for decades. Blythe's artistic education must have come primarily from prints and from illustrations in books and magazines. His paintings suggest familiarity with British graphic artists, including William Hogarth, Thomas Rowlandson, and George Cruikshank, as well as old master painting. Seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish genre presumably inspired the pictorial construction, closely observed detail, and unified, brownish tonality of A Match Seller (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, c. 1859). Looking at the viewer with sad and frightened eyes as he eats an apple, this young victim of social forces is more sympathetically presented than most of Blythe's numerous street urchins, but there is no suggestion that he will ever transcend squalor and ignorance. Blythe avidly supported Lincoln and the Union cause during the Civil War and in 1861 accompanied a local regiment to Virginia battlefields. The numerous dispirited captives in Richmond's Libby Prison (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1863) exhibit the hopelessness of their confinement in this infamously overcrowded former warehouse, but the grandly Rembrandtian space and shafts of supernatural luminosity suggest the valor of their cause.

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Subjects: Art.


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