David Gilmour Blythe: A Newly Discovered Painting of Lincoln
Cox, Thomas A., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)
In the early Spring of 1994, this writer, while on a drive through the countryside of Northwestern Ohio, bought a painting at an antiques shop (Figure 1). The painting appears to show Abraham Lincoln standing with his left hand on the head of a woman, who is not identified. There further appears to be a window in the left background with the profile figure of a man standing outside the room and framed by the window's curtains. The painting is not signed on the front. However, the name "David Blythe" is written on the back of the canvas and on one of the rear frame members. The name "Blythe" appears further on a piece of paper glued to the rear of the canvas. No record of this painting has been found; however, it appears that many of Blythe's works have no known provenance. The painting has been titled Lincoln Comforting Mary.
At a first glance, this work looks like one of the horde of over-romanticized images rendered of Lincoln both during and after his lifetime. But a closer look raises a series of questions that lead away from the initial impression the painting presents.
The man in the window is somehow an arresting figure. He is also a disturbing image. Who is he? What is he doing there? And why is Lincoln's right hand painted to appear dead and even decaying, while his left hand appears normal and alive? Similarly, why does the woman's left hand become ghost-like as she touches Lincoln's coat?
The writer did enough research in 1994 to convince him that the painting probably was a genuine Blythe, from a stylistic standpoint. But the questions as to the man in the window and the hands remained a mystery. The writer is an attorney. The painting was stored out of sight in his law office for approximately three years and was again brought out in July 1997. It was hung on a wall directly across from his desk. Research was again begun.
Answers have now been found to the questions raised by this work. These answers have been found in the life and career of David Blythe. They have been found in the works of other artists from which Blythe drew inspiration. And they have been found in the unique relationship of the artist with President Abraham Lincoln.
David Gilmour Blythe was born on May 9, 1815, at an inn on the Ohio River near Wellsville, Ohio. His parents were immigrants from Scotland. Blythe's biographer Bruce Chambers tells us in The World of David Gilmour Blythe:
As with many other artists of note, local legend has given David Blythe a childhood of artistic precocity. In addition there were important facets of his upbringing drawn from the rigors and determination of his parents' faith: a strict moral education, a profound belief in sin and its accountability, and a sense of commitment to the ideals of religious and political liberty expressed in the United States Constitution. There were gentler components of Blythe's instruction as well, suggested by his father's tenacious possession of the Perth encyclopedia. As is clear from his own poetry, Blythe was already thoroughly familiar as a young man not only with the Bible, but also with the writings of the English and Scottish poets, especially Robert Burns.' Blythe's life was filled with hardships, failures, and heartbreak. His youth was spent painting portraits in Ohio and Pennsylvania, traveling from place to place in an itinerant fashion characteristic of the times. His early works would probably be characterized today as "folk art"-indicating a paucity of formal training.
The artist, in 1851, entered into an agreement with two of his friends from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, to paint a Great Moving Panorama of the Allegheny Mountains. The painting was displayed to audiences in Pennsylvania and Ohio. It was eventually sold to pay for delinquent freight charges. From this point and for the remainder of his life, Blythe would barely eke out a living by selling his art. But he seemed not to care for money. …