Robert Frederick Blum was a major figure painter and illustrator who emerged from the active artistic milieu of mid-century Cincinnati, where he was born. From his studies in Cincinnati, Blum traveled to Philadelphia and studied art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1876-1877). Blum and many of his contemporaries greatly admired the meticulously executed work of the Spanish painter, Mario Fortuny, one of the leading artists of the Romano-Spanish school, whose work was exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition (1876).
In 1880, Blum met up with Frank Duveneck and his "Duveneck boys" in Venice, when the group was associated with James Abbot McNeil Whistler. Both Blum and John H. Twachtman, were profoundly influenced by their meeting with Whistler. Unlike Twachtman, however, Blum did not go to Munich. Instead he traveled to Paris to study at the Beaux-Arts Academy (1880). Perhaps the most significant event in the development of Blum's art was the impact his meeting Whistler in Venice had on the growth of Blum's interest in watercolor, etching, and pastel. During this decade, these two artists shared a concern for developing an impressionistic depiction of figures enveloped in light and atmosphere.
During the 1880s, Blum executed a series of paintings and pastels of Venetian lace makers and bead stringers as had Duveneck and John Singer Sargent before him. One of his major oils, Venetian Lace Makers (1887, Cincinnati Art Museum), won a Bronze Medal in 1889 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. This, and another of his major oils, Italian Bead Stringers (1887/88), are both vibrant sunlit images of contemporary women workers, reflecting the popularity of the subject during the 1880s and 1890s. These paintings also demonstrate Blum's characteristic duality, that is, his keen interest in academic pictorial design and structure beneath an apparent spontaneity.
Not only was Blum an able pastellist, he was also a proficient watercolorist in the tradition of Whistler. In 1884 Blum, along with his close friend, William Merritt Chase, founded the Society of Painters in Pastel in New York, and participated in exhibitions of the American Water Color Society and the New York Water Color Club. While Blum played a significant role, it was the watercolors and pastels of Whistler, and the watercolors of Winslow Homer, which were largely responsible for the elevated status these two media achieved at this time in America.
In his watercolors, Blum allowed himself more freedom to explore the spontaneity of the fluid medium. In this transitory and unforgiving medium he excelled at capturing the effect of ephemeral colored light dancing on water. While the underlying structure of academic pictorial design is evident, these paintings are also fluid and spontaneous in appearance. His paintings executed during the 1880s in Venice are evocative, suggestive, delicate vignettes, and highly successful impressionistic visions Venetian life.
Blum's work was well-known during his life time; he exhibited it frequently in New York at the annual exhibitions of the American Water Color Society, the National Academy of Design, and Society of American Artists, and the Society of Painters in Pastel; in Philadelphia at annual exhibitions of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; and in Chicago at the Art Institute of Chicago. He also showed his work in Paris and London. He was awarded the Gold Medal in 1893 for his work exhibited in the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and again in 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo.
Source: James M. Keny and Nannette V. Maciejunes, Triumph of Color and Light: Ohio Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, exh. cat., Columbus Museum of Art, 1994, 23-24, 96.