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Wash Day

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Wash Day

Artist: David Gilmour Blythe (American, 1815-1865)

Date: 1858-1859
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 17 1/2 x 13 1/4in. (44.5 x 33.7cm)
Signed: Lower right: 'Blythe'
Credit Line: Museum Purchase with Funds from the Charles E. Merrill Trust
Object number: 73.113
Text Entries

David Gilmour Blythe grew up in East Liverpool, Ohio, and began his career as a self-taught itinerant portrait painter. In the mid-1850s he settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he found a vast reservoir of social ailments that he could draw upon for satirical genre subjects. Influenced by seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish genre painting as well as by the English caricature tradition of Hogarth, Rowlandson, and Cruikshank, Blythe was as quick to burlesque the intemperances of the poor as he was to lampoon the pretensions of local politicians. His Protestant eye tended to equate the untidiness and corruption of the city with basic flaws in the moral universe. Yet on occasion, as in Wash Day, his paintings convey more a sense of pathos than of condemnation.(1)

In a cramped courtyard barren of all graces save sunlight, a woman and a small boy are attempting to do the laundry. Lifting her skirts above her knees, the woman stands in a wooden tub kneading the wash with her feet, While the boy rinses the clothes in a horse trough. The bright blues and reds of the garments—including several hung out to dry on nails on the back Wall—contrast sharply with the overall drabness of the yard, its deep shadows, and the darkened rooms beyond. A canary perches incongruously in a cage that hangs from a beam in the upper right corner.

Several of these motifs surface in other Blythe paintings—the cluttered “basement” setting, the urchin, and the water pump—all symbols of the disarray of urban life. More unusual is the image of a woman performing chores with her feet, which also appears in Blythe’s Kraut Making (North Carolina Museum of Art). Although portrayals of women engaged in domestic tasks are rare in pre-Civil War American genre painting (and almost nonexistent in the later nineteenth century), Tompkins H. Matteson,

Francis W. Edmonds, and, particularly, Lilly Martin Spencer explore the subject in the 1850s, usually with positive if humorous sentiments and always with the woman working with her hands. Blythe’s reference to older, European peasant work habits is deliberate; the bathetic rudeness of the as-yet-unassimilated immigrant is one of his pet social peeves.(2)

The caged bird has other connotations. While pet birds appear with some frequency in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European and American portraiture and genre painting, by the early 1850s, in the works of the British Pre-Raphaelites, the caged bird had come to represent the captive soul, imprisoned (as was its human female companion) in domestic servitude. Blythe, who was an avid borrower from the art of his contemporaries, almost certainly knew this symbolic reference, if only from popular prints or illustrations in periodicals.(3)

The Utica picture’s Baltimore provenance suggests that it was painted in 1858 or 1859 when, based on exhibition records and the provenance of other of the artist’s paintings, Blythe was working in Baltimore and Philadelphia. Its stylistic qualities—the treacly handling, rich notes of color, and mastery of chiaroscuro—also support this dating, when Blythe had reached maturity as a genre painter but before he turned to political satire, his preoccupation during the Civil War.(4)



1. For a general discussion of Blythe’s political and social attitudes, see Bruce W. Chambers, The World of David Giltnour Blythe, exhibition catalog (Washington, D.C.: National Collection of Fine Arts, 1980).

2. I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Elizabeth Johns in exploring the theme of women at work in nineteenth-century American genre painting.

3. On the caged bird as a Pre-Raphaelite motif, see Elaine Shefer, “Deverall, Rossetti, Siddal, and the Bird in the Cage,“ Art Bulletin, vol. 67 (September 1985)» PP- 437-48-

4. The painting bears an old label from J.J. Gillespie & Company, Blythe’s Pittsburgh dealer. The existence of this label does not preclude Blythe’s having sold the painting in Baltimore. On the other hand, all of the evidence that Blythe worked in Baltimore and Philadelphia in 1858-59 is circumstantial.


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