By Courtney A. Lynch
New to the Hawthorne Fine Art collection is a painting by David Gilmour Blythe (1815-1865), titled By the Fire and dated circa 1856. Blythe, a self-taught genre painter, is best known for his moralizing observations of poverty and working class life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By the Fire stands out as one of Blythe’s more wholesome and optimistic works, as well as one of his more complex compositions.
Through his treatment of color and use of contrasting light and dark elements, Blythe’s painting illuminates a scene of domestic contentment that was unusual for him at the time. At the center of the composition a family enjoys the warmth of their hearth; the mother and her son exchange a warm glance while they engage in household chores, and the child plays contentedly at his mother’s feet. The family’s meager financial state is noted in their sparse possessions, as well as the structure of their home. Yet, despite this lack of material abundance, the family enjoys this moment of quiet domesticity, awash in the light and warmth of the fire.
By the Fire is especially reminiscent of the genre interiors of 18th century French artist Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin. It shares with them a softened texture and gentle colorism as well as an academically refined presentation of the figures. Yet, through the encompassing darkness and the powerful fire, Blythe may be still inserting references to the ever-present reality of the industrial world outside, the incendiary and smoke-laden atmosphere of the city’s foundries. It is in fact these opposite forces, of light and darkness, and of happiness and want that Blythe became a master at capturing.
A remarkably similar painting in content and atmosphere belongs to the Duquesne Club, a private social club in Pittsburgh, PA.
The Duquesne painting plays off the same composition as By the Fire, albeit inverted. A family – now extended to include a grandmother – is again shown contentedly enjoying their hearth. The grandmother and the mother engage in knitting and mending respectively, while the father is absorbed in reading a newspaper. The wife has paused in her task to look up at her husband with the same affectionate gaze that can be seen in By the Fire. The son, who in By the Fire was engrossed in play, is occupied here with a cast-iron pot on the floor. In the background, a couple can be seen through the doorway, backlit by the fire they are enjoying in a second room.
Similarly to By the Fire, the Duquesne painting is also unusual in subject matter for Blythe, who most often painted street urchins or wayward workers living a compromised existence. It has been compared in style and content to the paintings of the American genre painter Francis William Edmonds, as well as the Scottish painter David Wilkie. So too are these works readily reminiscent of By the Fire.
First published as Interior, Family Group,1 the Duquesne Blythe has since been cited more recently with the dual titles Rustic Courtship or The Olden Time.2 The change in name reflects David G. Wilkins’ theory that the Duquesne Blythe could be one of these two lost paintings. The first, Rustic Courtship, has been unlocated since it was exhibited in 1879, while the second, The Olden Time, has been unlocated since it was exhibited at the Pittsburgh Sanitary Fair in 1864.
Wilkins establishes the possibility that the Duquesne painting could be The Olden Time through the painting’s content, as well as through the strong nostalgia for domestic contentment that it evokes. This sentiment, however, also applies directly to By the Fire, as both works are embodiments of an ‘olden’ or simpler time. The similarities between the two paintings (of which content, composition, mood and size are only the beginning) are numerous enough to suggest that either one could be the ‘lost’ Olden Time painting that was exhibited in 1864.
To learn more about this painting, or any others in Hawthorne Fine Art’s collection, please visit us online at http://www.hawthornefineart.com
1 see Bruce Chambers’ 1980 monograph, The World of David Gilmour Blythe
2 see Wilkins’ 2001 collection The Art of the Duquesne Club