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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
His main concession to the genre style of his own time was to present his unhappy visions as humor. Sometimes he seems to have been genuinely amused, as in his series lampooning the ballooning crinolines in which women enveloped their lower parts, but usually his comic action is on the order of the episode he includes so often in his more crowded pictures that it almost becomes a trademark: a little boy picking a prosperous pocket.
Although later historians of Pittsburgh have thought it best to suppress Blythe’s testimony, the pictures, which often mocked well-known characters, so suited his own rough times that when they were exhibited in the window of an art store, laughing crowds blocked the streets. The excitement was increased by reports—which electrified that money-grubbing society—that the artist disdained money. It was said that if rich patrons found their way up the filthy stairs to his attic room, Blythe would hardly let them sit down. Should they offer to buy a picture, he would fly into a rage. He hated to relinquish a picture to his dealer, and then he never asked whether it had been sold. The dealer, who easily disposed of his work, left orders that Blythe be given any money he asked for. He could, one Pittsburgher would whisper incredulously to another, draw a thousand dollars; but he never asked for more than five.
When the Civil War broke out, Blythe shambled into the field after a local regiment, wandering as a civilian from campfire to campfire and occasionally being arrested because of “his queer appearance and apparently aimless actions.” But he did have an aim. He wished to witness a battle: “I think such a scene would be worth almost a life,” he wrote. Although the regiment and Blythe returned without meeting the enemy, the disasters of war so appealed to his aesthetic sense that for once he was able to paint things he had not actually seen. His Libby Prison (see A MERICAN H ERITAGE , August, 1959, page 4), showing Union soldiers suffering and dying in captivity, is one of the most gruesome of American paintings. By some psychological twist, when he imagined soldiers marching toward death at Gettysburg, he put them in a landscape that strikes, for the only time in his entire career, a tender, lyrical note.
The carnage stirred in Blythe old ambitions for fruitful contact with the world. He would paint a panorama summarizing the Civil War; he would lecture, as the rollers turned, to enraptured crowds; waves of applause would carry him across the Alleghenies to New York; across the ocean to London, to Paris, to all the great cities he had never seen. He would be at last the success his mother had wanted him to be! But although he was not yet fifty, he no longer had the strength to fill in the huge scene-painter’s canvases, nor the will. He would rather drink and mourn that he had always been “a mark for destiny, or fate, or chance (no matter what) to fling their poisoned arrows at.” It was on May 15, 1865, that David Gilmour Blythe died of the aggravated effects of extreme alcoholism.