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Blythe, Justice

Immigration and the Know-Nothing Party. See learning resources here.

David Gilmour Blythe, Justice, c. 1860, oil on canvas, 51.1 x 61.3 cm (Fine Art Museums of San Francisco), a Seeing America video Speakers: Emily Jennings, Director of School and Family Programs, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and Beth Harris.
Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(playful piano music) - [Narrator one] We're in the galleries of the de Young Museum, part of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and 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. - [Narrator two] You have this bright light that cuts across the foreground, but all of that is saturated with these shadows. - [Narrator one] 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 and his shirt opened and his disheveled hat looks over toward the judge presiding up on his bench and looks worried, so he's being pulled over to go sit on the bench by the constable. - [Narrator two] We know that figure right behind him is the constable 'cause 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 brush strokes and the lack of differentiation of their faces in some ways allows them to stand in for whole populations within the United States. - [Narrator one] 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. - [Narrator two] 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's a level of racism. - [Narrator one] 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. - [Narrator two] And the most violent, I think, is emblazoned on that placard, this practice of trying to suppress votes by with individuals and dumping them in tubs of blood that was taken from butcher shops. - [Narrator One] 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. - [Narrator Two] You do see just how vulnerable these individuals are coming into this legal system. - [Narrator One] We do know that the artist had anti-immigrant feelings. He also had suspicions against the fair workings of the judiciary, and 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. And then right opposite him, a bust on the wall of probably a famous justice from history. And then below we see an African American with a banjo in his lap. So we have this sense of the dispossessed, those who are powerless and vulnerable, and a sense of the powers above them. 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. - [Narrator Two] And I think that that idea that life is indicting everyone might be in part why this composition still remains so vital today. - [Narrator One] It'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. (playful piano music)