Jerome Blum


Jerome S. Blum (1884-1956) was among one of the first American painters to adopt the styles and techniques of vanguard European painters such as Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Matisse and to adapt them to his own unique vision to create a modern American art.  He was especially inspired by their bold use of colors and their new approach to form and composition. He felt, “We [artists] do not try to reproduce nature; we, interpret it through our own impressions, and in color.”

The son of immigrants from Germany, Blum was born in Chicago, March 27, 1884 and grew up in a middle-class, hardworking family.  His father did not encourage his artistic predilection.  He insisted that Blum learn a trade that would support him.  His mother, however, strongly supported his desire to become an artist.  She admired and collected beautiful arts and crafts from around the world, particularly the Orient, objects that seemed to have compelled Blum not only to paint, but also to travel.  Other early sources of inspiration for adventure and art came from the South Seas exhibition at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and a trip to Munich for a family vacation in 1902, during which Blum was allowed to study painting at a small art school.

After his initial exposure to art classes, Blum pursued his training with vigor for the next several years.  He made an arrangement with his father that permitted him to enroll in more serious art courses after he learned a technical trade.  After working in a machine shop in Brooklyn, New York Blum returned to Chicago and worked for his father.  Then, in 1905, he began studies at the John Francis Smith Art Academy where he met Lucille Swan, a sculptor who would become his first wife.  When she left school for Paris, Blum was not far behind.  Around 1906-1907 he enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux Arts where he studied for about a year under Luc Olivier-Merson. 

Like so many American artists who went to study at the academies in Paris, Blum was dissatisfied with his training and sought inspiration outside the classroom walls.  He found more vitality and excitement in the discussions about art and life that unfolded at the numerous cafés, particularly the Café du Dôme.  He became a regular visitor to these establishments and was often in the company of fellow American artists such as Samuel Halpert and Jo Davidson, with whom he especially close, and Arthur Dove and Alfred Maurer.  Blum also explored the French countryside.  He visited with the Halperts at their country home in Chezy and began painting in a Post-Impressionist style.  During a trip to Auvers, his first sight of a painting by Vincent van Gogh further influenced his modernist manner.  Shortly before he left Paris, Blum had the honor of having five of his works selected for inclusion in the prestigious Salon d’Automne of 1909.

In 1910, after painting in Brittany during the spring and summer months, Blum returned to the United States hoping to establish his career as an artist.  He settled back in Chicago and tried to find a place to show his work; not an easy task in a city unreceptive towards modernism.  His first one-person show at W. Scott Thurber’s Gallery in 1911 stirred quite a bit of interest and controversy, as it was “one of the first exhibitions . . . of post-impressionistic painting” in the Chicago area.  The same year Blum had an exhibition of his works at the Katz Gallery in New York, which also attracted mostly negative responses.  While he may have had some detractors, Blum found considerable support from some of Chicago’s leading writers with whom he had become friendly during this period, including Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, and Ben Hecht.  However, the overall conservative attitude of the critics in America spurred Blum toward extensive overseas travel for the next several years.


Between 1912 and 1926 Blum journeyed far and wide and found fascinating subjects to paint wherever he went.  In 1912 he visited the American West, before going to Europe and North Africa.  In December he married to Lucille Swan in Paris.  He went to Corsica in 1913 and spent part of 1914 in Spain and England.  One of his longest sojourns during this time was his trip to China and Japan in 1915-16.  In China, the Blums rented a houseboat for three months and rode up and down the Yangtze River.  This adventure inspired some of his most memorable and interesting paintings.  Blum held exhibitions of these pictures in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia in 1916.  The critic for the Philadelphia Ledger observed, “There is a wonderful tonal quality in most of the Chinese scenes.  The colors selected are those that are most frequently selected by the Chinese themselves when decorating their porcelains.  The dull soft greens, the clear Chinese blues, and the glowing reds and yellows, are true Chinese colors, with a generous quantity of the lavenders that they know so well how to handle with the vivid colors just mentioned.  Mr. Blum uses a blue line around most of the objects in his pictures, but this line is quite unlike the line used by so many of the moderns.”  


We see Blum’s wonderful sense of color and his use of the blue outline in three paintings whose themes appear to be the Orient.  In one, the bright yellow of the building and the soft blues and pinks of the figures give a sense of vibrancy to the scene of everyday life in an Asian village.  Though we are close to the people, we are also distant; this is a view to another world and Blum is an outsider looking in, an observer, not a participant, as are we, the viewers.  The crowded composition is balanced in the traditional, western style, with forms bracketing the outer edges of the canvas and with a strong recession into space through foreground, middleground, and background.  In the second picture of a street setting, Blum stacks the forms in a strongly vertical format, and thus makes the composition read more like eastern, Asian pictures—from bottom to top, rather than from foreground to background.  The buildings and figures in this work, which seemed to be jumbled together, and the numerous angles and diagonals in the composition create a lively bustling scene full of energy and activity.  In the third image, probably inspired by his river journey, Blum presents us with a horizontal and closed composition.  While the angle of the three boats in the middleground and the one with the figure towards the background, suggest to the eye the waterway beyond the canvas, the main focus of the painting is the picturesque boats and buildings, and the dappled, shimmering water.  


In the late teens and early twenties Blum journeyed to France (1917), Cuba (1918), Paris, Brittany, and the Riviera (1919) and Tahiti and the South Sea Islands (1920-1921).  The main impetus for this last voyage was Frederick O’Brien’s book White Shadows in the South Seas.  The lush plant life, vibrant colors, and friendly natives of the islands stirred something deep inside Blum and helped him to produce brilliant, light-filled paintings of the area such as this Tahitian scene of a roadside view of a woman and tent-like structures engulfed by the landscape of richly glowing trees, foliage, and other plant forms.  As one critic observed, “To Mr. Blum these islands are alight with brilliant colors in the trees, flowers, skies and sea . . . Hot, bright tropical light and air fill these pictures, along with the light green leaves of the trees and the brilliant colors of the flowers.  There is no haste or gloom in them.  Patient study and happiness of spirit went into the making of them, and glows from them. . . . Mr. Blum has restored tropical brilliancy to the South Seas in pictorial art.” 

In 1926, two years after his divorce from Lucille, Blum remarried to Frances Baum and moved to France until the early 1930s.  The couple settled in Dampierre, close to Chartres and near Paris.  However, Blum took many lengthy painting excursions to coastal communities such as Cagnes, on the Riviera.  This was one of his favorite spots and it stirred his imagination to create rich, jewel-toned canvases.  In this and other works buildings, streets, and hills are intertwined into a decorative patchwork of color, light, and forms reminiscent of Cézanne.  However, Blum’s colors are more strident and his shapes more broadly defined. 

By the late 1920s Blum had also begun to write.  His short stories and other literary pieces appeared in periodicals such as The New Republic and American Spectator.  Friends like Dreiser, Anderson, and Hecht encouraged his work in this field. Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s Blum showed his work on a regular basis in America and abroad.  In 1929 his works were displayed at the Anderson Galleries in New York and in 1931 he participated in a group show at the Whitney Museum of American Art.  In 1932 he was included in an exhibition at the Galerie de la Renaissance in Paris and in 1933 and 1935 he was represented by paintings at the Delphic Studios in Manhattan.  He also participated in the Century of Progress exhibition held in Chicago in 1934 and had a one-person exhibition at Gump’s Gallery in San Francisco in 1936. Sometime between 1935 and 1936 Blum contracted a life-threatening illness that led to mental exhaustion and hospitalization.  Once institutionalized, Jerome Blum never painted again, although his works continued to be exhibited.  He died July 23, 1956.