- 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
‘Tis past! There was but one unbroken link That held me trembling on the brink; But that is gone , And now I sink! Alone! Alone!
He sought other girls, but now women seemed less a gift of purity than a temptation to evil. And as he drank ever more heavily, he became increasingly bellicose. Still remembered on both banks of the Monongahela was his personal war with neighboring Greene County, which lusted after a courthouse statue as elegant as his Lafayette. Delegates called on him to order one of General Nathanael Greene, but when Blythe asked !300, they replied that they had not intended to give him the whole county and that they had a carpenter at home who would do it for half the price. Blythe thereupon published in Uniontown newspapers poems calling Greene County “a sow grown fat with buttermilk and meal,” and commenting on the bedbugs and the crowding of its taverns. Since one of the taverns maintained sixteen beds in a room nicknamed “the prairie,” Blythe had touched on a sore spot. When a poet in a Greene County paper accused him of being too drunken to be worth listening to, Blythe dismissed his attacker as “the son of an insolvent rat.” (This brought into the fray another Greene County champion whom Blythe characterized as “a growling, whining hound.”) An effort was made to lure the artist over the border so that Greene County could ride him on a rail, but in the taverns of Uniontown he was more than ever a hero.
Blythe now established a partnership with two boon companions: they would pay the costs, and he would paint a series of huge views showing the landscape and historical events of western Pennsylvania. Sewed together to form a canvas strip seven feet high and three hundred feet long that could be passed from one roller to another, this became one of those precursors of the movies, a panorama. The narrator who lectured on the passing pictures to audiences both skeptical and gay had to keep his wits about him. Thus, when a backwoodsman rose to ask how a deer with tremendous antlers had got them through the thicket from which he was shown emerging, the speaker answered crushingly, “That’s his business!”
As the partners toured with the panorama—they got as far as Baltimore—Blythe became unmanageable. He insisted on doing the lecture himself, but got too drunk to be understood. His associates, recently his dearest Uniontown friends, finally abandoned him. The panorama was seized for debt. In anger and bitterness, Blythe banished himself from Uniontown. He no longer had a home.
In a poem written about this time, Blythe could now describe himself:
Out from the cold, blank emptiness Of a drunkard’s home slowly and hushed as A gnome-shade vomited from the green pestilent Stomach of a sepulcher, comes forth a thing The suppliant tongue of charity might Hesitate to call a man , … His eyes like angry, ill-closed, half-healed Wounds, physicianless .
Returning to his old trade of itinerant portrait painting, Blythe wandered for five years, no one knows exactly where, “becoming,” as he wrote, “half demented trying to find some place … where man and man can live together in unity.” But it was not such an idyllic spot that his spirit really craved. As long as he had kept his peace with the world around him, he had produced only trivial art. Now that he had given in to a personal despair like that of a fellow alcoholic, Edgar Allan Poe, his portraits began to take on forcethough unlike Poe (whose poems he sometimes imitated), Blythe was not a visionary able to give substance to altogether-subjective terrors. He needed exterior horrors to echo his interior moods, and he found them at last in the monstrous growing pains of industrialism.
Every time Blythe had visited Pittsburgh the air had been fouler, the sky sootier by day and more lurid with strange flames by night, the water front noisier and dirtier, the streets more full of grand carriages and beggars, of foreign tongues and dark faces, bewildered, angry, and confused. In 1856 he settled there, and, as he watched, the panic of 1857 slowed the whirling dance of death into a ghastly pavan. When the mills shut down, the skies cleared, and the pounding abated, but only to make more sharp the sight and sound of individual human anguish.
Through this noisome world walked the tall painter, often unsteadily, his unkempt red beard protruding from under a tepeelike buffalo-fur hat that half extinguished his face. A suit he had made himself flapped on his emaciated form. When an event or person interested him, he would lean his chin on his cane and stare silently, oblivious of any embarrassment he was causing, for minutes at a time. If, after he had dashed down on canvas what he had seen, the resulting picture offended, he merely expressed amusement at his victims’ “writhings.”