Blythe, Justice

David Gilmour Blythe, Justice, c. 1860, oil on canvas, 51.1 x 61.3 cm (Fine Art Museums of San Francisco)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re in the galleries of the de Young Museum, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. We’re looking at a mid-19th century painting by David Gilmour Blythe called “Justice.” It’s an interesting title because we’re not quite sure whether justice is going to be done, in fact.

Emily Jennings: [0:24] You have this bright light that cuts across the foreground, but all of that is saturated with these shadows.

Dr. Harris: [0:29] It is a very dark and dismal space, but the figures that are walking through the door, at least some of them, are quite brightly illuminated. That figure with dark boots on, and his hands shoved in his pocket, his shirt opened, and his disheveled hat looks over toward the judge presiding up on his bench and looks worried. He’s being pulled over to go sit on the bench by the constable.

Emily: [0:56] We know that figure right behind him is the constable because of that glinting badge that’s on his lapel. The figures are really fascinating. In them we feel the sense of uneasiness that’s captured in the brushstrokes, and the lack of differentiation of their faces in some ways allows them to stand in for whole populations within the United States.

Dr. Harris: [1:14] They’re poor, likely unemployed. The second figure carries a shovel. The figure behind that seems to carry some kind of carpentry tools. In Pittsburgh, where Blythe was painting, there was a huge influx of immigrants at this time, and it’s overcrowded, housing is difficult to find.

Emily: [1:33] The great wealth harnessed from the city as the industrial center that it was was very much on the back of immigrants. These individuals being brought in to the courts for being either on the streets because they had no other alternative, but also there was a level of racism.

Dr. Harris: [1:48] Most of the immigrants coming during this period were German, they were Irish, Italian, and this anti-immigrant feeling in the mid-19th century gives rise to a party that called themselves the Know-Nothings, and what they were involved in were often violent acts against immigrants.

Emily: [2:06] The most violent, I think, is emblazoned on that placard, this practice of trying to suppress votes by absconding with individuals and dumping them in tubs of blood that was taken from butcher shops.

Dr. Harris: [2:18] We have to wonder whether these figures are going to get a fair trial. Especially with that placard on the bench, which perhaps signifies that justice, in this case, the judge, is perhaps a member of the Know-Nothing party, sympathetic with them at least, and is not going to give these people — some of them likely immigrants — a fair hearing.

Emily: [2:38] You do see just how vulnerable these individuals are coming into this legal system.

Dr. Harris: [2:43] We do know that the artist had anti-immigrant feelings. He also had suspicions against the fair workings of the judiciary.

[2:51] The way that the judge sits so sternly in profile with those books next to him, he’s the authority, he’s going to wield the law. Above him, the scales of justice, which don’t look quite balanced, are also telling us something.

[3:06] Then right opposite him, a bust on the wall of probably a famous justice from history. Then below we see an African American with a banjo in his lap. We have this sense of the dispossessed, those who are powerless and vulnerable, and a sense of the powers above them.

[3:25] This is such an interesting painting because we so often look at art, and it’s really clear what position the artist is taking. But in this case, we get the feeling that the artist is not sympathetic with anyone.

Emily: [3:39] I think that that idea that Blythe is indicting everyone might be in part why this composition still remains so vital today.

Dr. Harris: [3:46] He’s not particularly fond of the immigrants. He’s not particularly fond of the judicial system. He’s not fond of the press. This expectation that justice is blind, that justice is meted out in an objective way, is shown to be patently false here. Everything is under suspicion.

[4:03] [music]

Cite this page as: Emily Jennings, Director of School and Family Programs, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Dr. Beth Harris, "Blythe, Justice," in Smarthistory, March 22, 2019, accessed June 15, 2024,