David Gilmour Blythe, Post Office, 1859–1863. Collection of Carnegie Museum of Art
One of my favorite rooms at the museum is the small regionalist gallery amid the Fine Arts collection in the Scaife wing, Gallery 3 on the museum’s second floor. On the left-hand wall when you enter the gallery hangs a selection of the museum’s holdings of the work of the American satirist painter, David Gilmore Blythe. I knew about Blythe from my nineteenth-century American art history classes—he was part of the same generation as Daumier and Hogarth, yet he was likely unaware of his European brothers. Blythe, born in East Liverpool, Ohio, started his career in Pittsburgh first as a carpenter and then as an itinerant painter, at one time also based in Uniontown. Sometime around 1852, after the death of his young wife and his father, and the failure of a moving panorama entertainment project that drained his savings, Blythe started to make small vignettes in the style and subject of then popular genre paintings, but with a satirical bite. His goal was to highlight the social injustices he saw rampant in Civil War-era America. Businessmen and judges appear in his paintings with some frequency, often as grotesque fat and greedy men. Young street urchins dressed in dirty rags lurk amid the urban squalor that Blythe witnessed firsthand in a rapidly industrializing urban center like Pittsburgh, then still struggling with rampant poverty.
The Post Office offered an especially lively mix of clientele, once sending letters was made more affordable. Thankfully for Pittsburgh, it was in this climate of social turmoil that Andrew Carnegie’s interest in philanthropy and public libraries would develop late in the century and leave a lasting mark on the culture of this city today. For Blythe, however, in the 1850s and 1860s, sinful and deviant behavior stood hazardously in the way of American ideals of religious and political liberty. Learn more about the Carnegie’s collection of Blythe’s work.