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David Blythe

 (1815 - 1865)
David Gilmour Blythe was active/lived in Pennsylvania, Ohio.  David Blythe is known for satirical-genre painting, portrait, still life.

David Blythe

    BLYTH    click to hear

Biography from the Archives of askART

A leading satiric genre painter of his time, David Blythe did work that often commented on the American court system and also depicted poverty-stricken street children.  He was born in East Liverpool, Ohio to Irish and Scottish parents.  He had little formal art training but at age 16, apprenticed to Joseph Woodwell, a woodcarver from Pittsburgh.  He also observed artists' work in a local gathering place owned by J.J. Gillespie.

From 1837 to 1840, he was a ship's carpenter and traveled to Boston and the West Indies and then became an itinerant portrait painter from 1841 to 1845.  He traveled throughout Pennsylvania and Eastern Ohio and during this time began painting scenes of city life.  This work, which was humorous and satiric, contrasted greatly with his solemn, primitive portraits.

In 1846, he settled in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, married, wrote poems for the local newspaper, and painted from his studio that he called the "rat's nest."  Prone to depression and alcoholism, he struggled throughout his life with these afflictions, especially when his wife died after one year of marriage.  He then dedicated himself to painting, completing a 300-foot panorama of the Western Pennsylvania mountains.  In 1851, he went on tour with that work through Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. He also did an 8-foot high statue of Lafayette for the Fayette County Courthouse in Pennsylvania.

Many of the paintings he did between 1854 and 1860 were of street urchins, a subject that expressed his own problems with struggling for money and feeling oppressed.  A strong Union sympathizer, he was much affected by the Civil War, and his greatest output is from this period when he was a sketch artst for the 13th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers. The Battle of Gettysburg" is considered to be one of his masterpieces because of its powerful depiction of battle.  The location of that painting is unknown, but a series lauding Abraham Lincoln is in the Museum of Fine Arts Boston.

He spent his last years in Pittsburgh.

Sources include:
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
David Gilmour Blythe was the fourth of six sons born to parents who had emigrated from Ireland and settled in the United States.  At the time of his birth, the Blythe family resided in the community of East Liverpool, Ohio.  What we know of Blythe's early biography includes a strict moral upbringing by a traditional family structure and exposure to education through the Bible and literature of British and Scottish poets.

Blythe as a young man served as a woodcarving and cabinetmaking apprentice for only six months before enlisting in the Navy for several years.  By 1840, Blythe's interest in art was shaping his career through his production of portraitures, although he remained self-taught.  It is important to remember that at this time only a limited number of artists visited or resided in the communities near the Ohio-Pennsylvania border where Blythe had returned after the naval service.  Since many individuals desired portraits and photography still was not the widespread phenomena that it would become in a few years, Blythe found an available and ready market for his trade.

Fully integrated into the life of an artist, Blythe struggled through tumultuous times with the death of his wife in 1850 and the financial strain incurred when a landscape panorama he painted and traveled did not produce its expected revenue. (1) 

Blythe moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1856 and not soon afterwards, his painting progressed beyond portraiture by experimenting with genre subjects.  Satire and wit dominated Blythe's interpretations of everyday life in America as the artist poked fun at many groups and issues from his contemporary society.  Without a traditional artistic background, Blythe emulated other artists and illustrators, especially those images contained caricatures and cartoons of social issues.  Even though Blythe was the offspring of immigrants, he allied himself with the Know Nothing political party, a patriotic organization that sought naturalization of groups arriving during the mid-nineteenth century. (2) This political faction aimed to limit the numbers of immigrants while at the same time insuring that those recently arrived conformed to true American ideals as they interpreted them.  Such sentiment was common for this time in American society.

1. For biographical information on Blythe, see Bruce W. Chambers, The World of David Gilmore Blythe (1815-1865), (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Collection of Fine Arts, 1980), 11-14.

2.  For a more complete interpretation of nineteenth-century attitudes toward immigrants and their development within Blythe's paintings, see Dr. Marilyn Laufer's unpublished essay, "David Gilmour Blythe's Land of Liberty: Speculations on Immigration and the Body Politic of mid-19th century Urban America", The Columbus Museum files.

Source: Staff, Columbus Museum

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About  David Blythe

Born:  1815 - East Liverpool, Ohio
Died:   1865 - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Known for:  satirical-genre painting, portrait, still life