David Gilmour Blythe (May 9, 1815 - May 15, 1865) was a self-taught
American artist best known for paintings which satirically portrayed political
and social situations.
David Gilmour Blythe (May 9, 1815 - May 15, 1865) was a self-taught American
artist best known for paintings which satirically portrayed political and social
Blythe was born in East Liverpool, Ohio on May 9, 1815 to poor parents of
Scottish and Irish ancestry. After a childhood in a log cabin by the Ohio River,
at the age of 16, Blythe moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There he apprenticed
himself to woodcarver Joseph Woodwell. In his subsequent work as an itinerant
portrait painter, Blythe traveled widely from Baltimore to Philadelphia and
perhaps as far as New Orleans. Other than his stint with Woodwell, Blythe had no
known artistic education or training.
In addition to painting, Blythe carved from poplar a large (8'2") statue of
Lafayette for the Uniontown, Pennsylvania courthouse. He also invested a great
deal of time and energy painting a panorama — an early forerunner to motion
His social awkwardness and general bellicosity were intensified when Blythe
drank, which was often. After another statue project in nearby Green County fell
through, the Uniontown newspapers published Blythe poems in which he referred to
Greene County as "a sow grown fat with buttermilk and meal." A Greene County
newspaper then published a retort by a local poet in which Blythe was named too
much of a drunk to be worth anyone's attention. Blythe's impudent response was a
letter in which he called the poet "the son of an insolvent rat."
Between 1850 and 1852, Blythe suffered several profound losses. Both his father
and his wife, the former Julia Ann Keffer, died. His panorama venture failed
financially. After these tribulations, his work became increasingly and bitingly
satirical. He turned away from portraiture and instead concentrated on canvases
depicting hot-button social and political issues. He opposed the expansion of
both slavery and immigration and made visual points regarding both issues in a
number of paintings.
Blythe painted "Lincoln Crushing the Dragon of Rebellion" in 1862. This piece
depicts a fiery Abraham Lincoln in the center of the canvas, straining forward
to crush rebellion (depicted as an alligator or crocodile) while in the
background, a huge fire rages.
Blythe did not serve in the military during the Civil War. He did follow a
regiment in hopes of making sketches to use later as studies for paintings of
battle. Although Blythe did not personally witness combat, he gained enough of a
sense of the cruelties of war that he was emboldened to paint several powerful
pieces. Of these, the most famous is "Libby Prison," which Blythe painted in
1863. It depicts Union soldiers suffering intensely in captivity. It is
generally considered to be one of the most gruesome of all American paintings of
Civil War scenes.
Many of Blythe's most accomplished paintings offer barbed commentary on the
American judicial system; politics; the pretensions of the burgeoning American
middle class; and the daily activities of street urchins he encountered in
His paintings of children are particularly notable for their distinct lack of
sentimentality. Blythe's children generally exhibit a sharp intelligence and
rather adult, cynical expressions. They are shown to be canny participants in
the city's hustle-and-bustle: playing marbles for money, setting off
firecrackers, picking pockets, smoking cigars, stealing eggs, and indulging in
other forms of hanky-panky.
On May 15, 1865, Blythe died of complications of alcoholism.
Although Blythe was well-regarded in Pittsburgh during his final years, he did
not enjoy a larger national reputation in his lifetime. From his death until the
1940s, his life and work were largely forgotten. Since the 1940s, however, his
oeuvre has earned growing respect and prestige. His paintings are in the
permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine
Arts, Boston; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; and the Butler Institute of
American Art, among others.
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