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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
Thus, when past forty, Blythe began the creation on which his reputation rests: angry scenes of Pittsburgh life. In the haunts of the respectable—churches, business offices, and courthouses (he was no longer admitted to drawing rooms)—and in the respectable themselves he found only pompous hypocrisy, but for beggars, drunkards, and thieves his heart warmed with pity. It was the pity of the surgeon—or the psychiatrist —who lays cankers bare.
Again and again, Blythe struck harsh notes unsounded at that time in American painting (for parallels one would have to look to some of his French contemporaries—of whom he undoubtedly knew nothing). Although the Civil War impended, American art still reflected almost exclusively the kind of optimism that Susan Blythe had felt as she had floated down the Ohio. Grounding their attitudes on three centuries of national growth and well-being, recognizing America as still primarily a rural land, figure painters hymned with William Sidney Mount the joys of eastern farm life; with George Caleb Bingham, the masculine amusements of the rivers and hamlets of the West. It was Blythe’s personal maladjustments that made him seek what was ugly in a smiling world, made him express angers, depressions, and sadisms similar to those which seventy years of historical tragedy—the Revolution, Napoleonic defeats, tyrannies, the abortive uprisings of 1830 and 1848—had implanted in French art.
Blythe’s concern with cities, their law courts and their tatterdemalions, was like that of the Parisian cartoonist-painter Daumier. Blythe could show that fascination with violence and physical suffering that characterized so much Gallic figure painting. And when he depicted rural life, he substituted for the prosperous farmers Americans were accustomed to see in paintings, peasants as disfigured by labor and brutalized by poverty as those by Millet which were at the moment shocking the French Salon.
It was not Blythe, an eccentric hardly known outside western Pennsylvania, but Poe, the inspirer of many younger French writers, who brought American neuroses to bear on European creation. Yet Blythe’s attitudes pointed further into the future than Poe’s. Unlike Poe, he found in sickness and misery nothing heroic: they merely caused pain and despair. In this he anticipated the defeatism of much twentieth-century European art. His repellent, bewildered, helplessly suffering protagonists would be at home in the pages of Kafka.
Since Blythe could, when he wished, draw realistically, it was not incompetence that produced his often hideous distortions of the human figure. He showed the run of mankind as squat, wrapped in unlovely flesh, bloated and stupefied with unhealthy blood. Then there were the supermen, the oppressors. Like the brute who wields the whip in Blythe’s masterpiece, Pittsburgh Horse Market , they have been thinned down by their own demoniac energy into virtual skeletons: no flesh seems to soften the aggressive jutting of their grinning jaws. He painted trials in which the lank, evil prosecutor is all-persuasive, the judge and jury boobies, and the victim too deep in the degradation of the human lot to do more than stare hopelessly, while occupying his hands in the idiotic whittling: of a stick.∗
∗ In 1856, writing a letter in the form of a poem to an old Uniontown friend, Blythe had this to say about the courts of law in his day:
Our courts with few exceptions Are fit subjects for … objections . Public opinion first, Blackstone second , Now-a-days. And then our juries , Oh, if there’s such a thing as “furies” Why don’t they pitch in? Curious , Just imagine twelve ignoramuses With flat heads … Sitting in judgement on an intricate Case of law. Beautiful, isn’t it?
The power of Blythe’s conceptions was greater than his success in giving them expression—and in this he was inferior to Poe. Surely he never had a single day’s artistic instruction, and in his whole lifetime hardly saw a painting worthy of the name. That his sources were mainly black-and-white engravings may have accounted for his weakness in color, which tended toward an all-pervasive yellow-brown. Not that he particularly cared. He was too eager to achieve ends to give much thought to means. For his flights, he relied on the erratic wings of his often-alcoholic inspiration. As a result, his output was shockingly uneven, and his best canvases contain, beside brilliant strokes, flaws of conception and execution.
Blythe seems to have cultivated confusion in his pictures much as he did in his own life. Having withdrawn from society—“he seldom,” an admirer recorded, “associated with anyone”—he liked to hide clues and symbols necessary for comprehension of his pictures in dark corners where the eye must grope for them. Thus wilfully casting obscurities between his art and his audience, Blythe was again strangely modern.