” I have grown
Almost gray and half-demented
In trying to find some place where I could
Some place where man and man might dwell
Together in unity, and not tell
Lies on one another.
I’ve never found
Such place. And though I ‘ve hunted ’round
Perhaps with goggles on, I’ll jist
Bet my life it don ‘t exist
On top of ground.”
—David Gilmour Blythe (in a letter to Hugh Gorley, 1857)
In 1856 David Gilmour Blythe was at the pivotal point of his artistic career. He had just moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from East Liverpool, Ohio, his hometown, to which he had returned but two years earlier after several years of wandering in the Midwest insearch of a place where he might peacefully settle. His need for a haven was acute, for in the years between 1850 and 1852 he had been buffeted by the deaths of his wife and father, and the dismal failure of an ambitious moving panorama on which he had staked both his financial security and his professional reputation. Embittered by his losses and by what he felt was pervasive social and political corruption, Blythe had by 1856 begun to turn away from the portraiture on which he had survived for the previous sixteen years, and had started instead to focus on images that satirized the folly and turpitude of mankind.
The Pittsburgh to which he turned was not a haven, but instead a place of social turmoil, economically depressed yet crowded with immigrants whose poverty and ignorance were ripe targets for manipulation and abuse. Crime, from petty truancy to murder and arson, was increasing rapidly, and while social and educational reforms were being debated from both pulpitand council chamber, scores of neglected children continued to roam the streets.
In the larger national picture, it was a time of complex political ferment. New alliances were being formed, like the Know-Nothings, who were declaratively anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic; the Republican Party, from which Abraham Lincoln was soon to emerge, held its first convention in Pittsburgh in 1856, and had already begun to address those impassioned issues that would lead the country into a devastating internal conflict.
It was thus that in Pittsburgh, in which population growth exceeded opportunities foremployment, even though booming industry still covered the city with an impenetrable andchoking cloud of soot, Blythe found an inexhaustible source of material for his sardonic wit. Other artists who were his contemporaries could prosper in their endless variations on reassuring themes; Blythe’s acute sense of human error and depravity revealed a very different picture ofAmerican civilization on the eve of the Civil War.
Bruce W. Chambers The World of David Gilmour Blythe (1815 – 1865) (Washington,D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Collection of Fine Arts, 1980)