A Rare Peter Blume Work Available at Jonathan Boos
By Margie Fuchs
The story of Two Rivers, American artist Peter Blume’s work depicting the rural Appalachian town of Rome, Georgia, begins not in the South, but rather in rural western Connecticut. Painted at the height of Blume’s career in 1942, Two Rivers served as a detailed study for a mural in Rome, one of a handful that the United States Post Office commissioned the artist to create across the country. Blume visited Rome several times in preparation for the mural before returning to Connecticut to translate his sketches into comprehensive works. For our latest Boos Knows, we travel across time and place to learn more about how this work came to be.
With its narrow river valleys, lush forests and sloping hills, western Connecticut offers a welcome respite from the rush of New York City, as well as a natural source of inspiration. So, it’s no wonder that the region attracted a growing assortment of artists, writers and creatives in the 20th century, including Blume, who packed up his belongings at the ripe age of 24 and moved north from Brooklyn. Blume settled in the small, colonial town of Sherman in 1930, just as the region’s artistic community was beginning to flourish.
The advent of World War II brought an influx of European artists and intellectuals – many proponents of the avant-garde and Surrealism – to Sherman and the surrounding area. Armenian-American painter Arshile Gorky, whose works were a central influence in the development of Abstract Expressionism, spent his later years in the countryside in the company of artists including Surrealist couple Yves Tanguy and Kay Sage. Julius Levy, Blume and Gorky’s pioneering New York art dealer and one of the era’s leading proponents of Surrealism, also lived nearby. The region’s promise of respite attracted the creative minds of André Masson, Pavel Tchelitchew and Alexander Calder, who moved to Roxbury in 1933 and raised his family in a farmhouse. There, Calder engaged with the Surrealist ideas he first encountered in Europe, incorporating them into his sculptural practice, similar to how Blume engaged with Surrealism in his paintings and works on paper.
Blume lived and worked in Sherman for the majority of his career, with the notable exception of a year abroad in 1932, when he moved to Italy to study the art of the Italian Renaissance through a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. In Italy, he emulated the drawing and design technique known as disegno, which involved drafting multiple studies and preparatory designs before completing the final composition, and began incorporating this process into his own practice. Blume considered studies as important accompaniments to his final work and even exhibited them alongside his finished paintings. Inspired by his time in Benito Mussolini’s Italy, Blume painted The Eternal City (1934-1937) and later showcased the work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York City alongside four sketches. The Eternal City, which features a green caricature of the fascist dictator in the lower right, as well as two preparatory studies remain in MoMA’s permanent collection today.
Winning first prize at the 1934 Carnegie International, the oldest exhibition of contemporary art in North America, catapulted Blume to international renown. His decorated painting South of Scranton (1931) wowed crowds with its unique combination of vignettes that the artist witnessed on a road trip across the east coast, including the expansive coalfields outside of Scranton, steel mills across Pennsylvania and sailors performing aerobic exercises on the deck of their vessel. Blume’s distortions of scale, seen in the oversized and gravity-defying sailors on the right of the canvas, and the juxtaposition of singular and unrelated scenes, including positioning a coal field next to a deep-water port, transformed his road trip into an otherworldly dreamscape.
South of Scranton ushered in the surreal, large-scale allegorical paintings that Blume would go on to produce in the next two decades. These works would earn the artist notable patrons, including Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, co-founder of MoMA; Alfred Barr Jr., director of MoMA, who acquired The Eternal City for the museum; businessman and philanthropist Edgar J. Kaufmann, who commissioned The Rock (1944-1948) for his famous home, Fallingwater; and even the United States Post Office.
As an extension of the federal government’s New Deal programs of the 1930s-1940s, the US Post Office commissioned Blume and other notable American artists to create large-scale murals for new branches across the country. Following a national contest that involved artists anonymously submitting mural sketches for locations in distinct regions of the country, Blume was selected to create the piece in Rome, Georgia. Titled Two Rivers, this mural features Rome’s local skyline and notable geographic features, including the convergence of the Oostanuala and the Etowah rivers and the Appalachian Mountains, rendered in the government-prescribed American Scene style but containing elements of the emerging avant-garde. Rome debuted Blume’s mural in 1943, two years after Geneva, New York’s post office unveiled the artist’s commission and six years after the inauguration of a similar mural in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania’s branch.
Blume’s draftsmanship allowed him to create Two Rivers based off of multiple on-site sketches retroactively from his Connecticut home. The work presents a composite view of Rome’s landmark buildings and features, including the iron Fifth Avenue Bridge. On the left of the work, a lone onlooker watches a rafted fisherman from his perch on the bridge, which the artist called “a marvelous-looking antique” leading to the heart of Rome. Blume’s linework renders the industrial-era drawbridge and peninsula that Rome sits on clearly and precisely, underscoring the importance of geography in the town’s history. The work captures the meeting of the mighty Oostanuala and Etowah rivers in the lower right. “One of them was a muddy river and one was a clear river and they merged at that place,” Blume wrote. “You could actually see the [rivers] merging, and I liked that. So I used that in it [in the mural].” This confluence enabled Rome to become a transportation and commercial hub in the late 19th century, a past that Blume continually references in the work.
L-R: Peter Blume, Two Rivers, 1942, detail; Photograph of Fifth Avenue Bridge, 1945, Rome, Georgia.
At the center of the work stands the historic Floyd County Courthouse, the location of the post office and the Two Rivers mural. Rome’s iconic 19th century Clock Tower, built at the height of the town’s influence and recognizable with its black and white clock face, rises at the apex of the painting. While Two Rivers visualizes the buildings next to one another, in reality they are one block apart.
L-R: Peter Blume, Two Rivers, 1942, detail; Photograph of Floyd County Courthouse in Rome, Georgia. Image courtesy of Floyd County.
Blume sets the tightly grouped buildings and towering iron drawbridge against a red-hued landscape with the lush Appalachian Mountains in the distance. Beneath the mountains, Blume painted the former Celanese Textile Mill, which played an important role for Rome’s industrial history and whose products were transported down the Oostanuala and Etowah rivers. Blume’s characteristic use of chiaroscuro – the technique of using strong contrasts of light and shadow to create a sense of depth – and vivid, saturated colors heighten the otherwise placid scene.
L-R: Photograph of The Clock Tower, Rome, Georgia. Courtesy of Floyd County; Peter Blume, Two Rivers, 1942, detail.
Art history scholar Frank Anderson Trapp states the importance of the Two Rivers mural, “The basic conception of the work superficially resembles South of Scranton in its assemblage of unrelated various scenes. But the more rational order and scale of their disposition more closely resembles-if in a much simpler way- the directed synthesis of the elements in The Eternal City. In this, as well as in the fundamentally chiaroscuro manner of the execution, Two Rivers also anticipates The Rock. The emboldened character of color composition in this mural, in particular, also strongly presages that next major work.” (Frank Anderson Trapp, Peter Blume [New York: Rizzoli, 1987], np)
Two Rivers celebrates the town of Rome while evading easy stylistic categorization. Using a hybrid of styles including Precisionism and Surrealism, it visualizes the past and present of northern Georgia with a heightened sense of reality. This unique study was pivotal in the creation of the final Rome mural and underscores why Blume is remembered as a master of highly detailed, epic narrative paintings.
Editor’s note: At this time, Two Rivers is no longer available.