- Historic Sites
The Dark World Of David Gilmour Blythe
In an age when art radiated nothing hut light and optimism, this self-taught painter from Pittsburgh saw another, more somber side of American life
October 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 6
As the raft on which she drifted carried her down the half-tamed Ohio, Susan Blythe envisioned bright futures for the child that stirred within her. If the destiny of any emerging life were in truth unpredictable, surely, here in a world of huge skies and endless resources, the auguries were good. It was to find these auguries that she and her Scottish husband had adventured from her native Ireland. Far from Europe’s ancient, killing winters, her baby would inhabit a springtime world.
But the wisdom of old civilizations would be her baby, too, preserved by her husband’s skill in his cooper’s trade. Earlier in their voyage, when they were still on the Allegheny River, a crosscurrent had smashed their raft against an island. The twenty-three volumes of the Encyclopedia Perthensis , which they had laboriously brought with them from Europe to make their offspring wise, fell into the river. But so watertight was the packing case her husband had Jashioned that, with the books as ballast, it bobbed gaily downstream, to be caught by an Indian who was glad to sell it back, white man’s knowledge and all, for ten dollars.
Just over the Pennsylvania line, the Blythes put their possessions ashore near East Liverpool, Ohio. While her husband searched the partly settled area for the best piece of unpre empied forest, Susan Blythe gave birth, on May 9, 1815, to the weeping bundle that was to glow into one of America’s most strangely inspired painters.
David Gilmour Blythe was raised in a log cabin. His compulsion to draw caricatures of the neighbors on every available surface—a fragment of slate, the back-house door—indicated to loving eyes a skill with his hands encouraging for a craftsman’s son. But certainly there were also less favorable omens: uncontrollable tantrums, inexplicable depressions, unconquerable fears.
At the age of sixteen, Blythe was apprenticed to a wood carver at Pittsburgh, about forty miles upriver. After three years of whittling emblems and architectural decorations, he set himself up as a house painter. Hut Blythe was restless: soon he left Pittsburgh and sailed downriver to New Orleans. The snags and the jetties, the wood boats and the rafts, the “darkies” loading and unloading to song—all these sights and sounds brought him no comfort. His soul called lor something stranger, more impossible, farther away. He journeyed to Xew York and joined the Navy. But his ship remained in local and Caribbean waters: he found no El Dorado.
His enlistment finally over, Blythe wandered through eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania, earning a meager living as a self-taught painter of portraits. From the hard, crabbed, minimal likenesses he made, no one could have guessed that his name would one day rank high in the roster of American artists.
Having for five years inched under what he called “the stranger’s cold, blank stare” down a seemingly endless vista of small-town boardinghouses, Blythe in i8^0 found himself in yet another, this one forty miles south of Pittsburgh at Llniontown, Pennsylvania. He sat silent, a tall, ungainly, red-headed young man, as the regulars roared at the dinner table over a remembered incident: a local peddler had fallen asleep on the road and awakened to realize that his horse had thrown him into a ditch on top of the produce he had collected in exchange for shoes: eggs, butter, an outraged turkey gobbler. That Sunday, the boarders found on the parlor mantel a drawing of the scene. As laughter rocked through the village, Blythe achieved, at the age of thirty-one, friends and a home.
It seemed to him now, after so much wandering in search of he knew not what, that dear companions were what he had always most desired. From his studio, known as “the rat’s nest,” Blythe issued to mix liquor, jokes, and art. As a good fellow, he was considered a greater painter than Sir Joshua Reynolds—with whose work Uniontown was far from familiar. According to local anecdote, a judge (he must have been very nearsighted) bowed to one of Blythe’s portraits thinking it the actual man, and a lady (she must have been desperate for attention) almost fainted before the same likeness, exclaiming that she had seen a ghost.
With an adze as his basic tool and a tiny engraving for a model, Blythe carved from poplar a statue of Lafayette that stood eight feet two inches in its shoes. The unveiling of this wonder was one of Uniontown’s proudest days. Waving a perpetually refilled glass, the sculptor acknowledged the plaudits of the citizens, while beside him the wooden patriot towered motionless, one hand in the pocket of an immense frock coat and the other grasping the high hat which a tinsmith had fashioned. While the militia fired volleys in salute, the image was hoisted to its position topping the dome of the Fayette County Courthouse. Now, so Blythe rhymed in one of the occasional verses he wrote, every eye could see against the firmament
… the chaste outline of one Who was the friend of Washington .
As a balance to male conviviality, Blythe frequented the drawing rooms of young ladies who were “all virgin purity,” adorned, so he wrote in their albums, with flowers plucked in Eden. One girl especially seemed to be “from that land where sin and suffering cease.” She became his wife. Now, so he exulted, “hope is lined with velvet.”
Within less than a year his wife died, and he cried out: