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The Dark World Of David Gilmour Blythe

May 2024
11min read

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

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:

‘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.”

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.

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.


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