Richard Blow (1904 - 1983)
Portrait of a Butler, Italy, n.d.
Marble pietra dura mounted on slate
16 7/8 x 14 inches
Monogrammed at lower right: RB
Illegibly inscribed on the reverse: Made in Italy....
B. C. Holland, Inc., Chicago, Illinois (inventory #C74-8-29)
Richard Blow was born in La Salle, Illinois, on February 22, 1904, the youngest of four children of George and Adele Mattheissen Blow. Richard, his sister, and two brothers spent their childhood on the family estate, Deer Park, near La Salle before going off to school. He attended Woodberry Forest School in Virginia and then Lawrenceville in preparation for Princeton where he studied architecture. His interest in art began early, stimulated by watching his mother who had studied art in Paris before her marriage. It was her habit to roam the estate sketching from nature, and Richard recalled following her around and making his own drawings.
During his three years of study at Princeton, Blow found free rein for his sharp sense of humor, as a cartoonist for the "Tiger". His inclination to art became a compelling force, which took him from Princeton to the study of painting under Professor Leon Kroll at the Art Institute of Chicago.
In 1926 Blow went to Europe with his older brother. In 1927 he purchased a Renaissance villa, Piazza Calda, situated on a hilltop in Santa Margherita a Montici, across the Arno from Florence. Sadly neglected by its previous owner, the house and grounds required extensive renovations. During the restoration period Richard attended the Beaux-Arts in Paris for a few months, studying with Andre Lhote. Then from late 1927 and for the half century following, Piazza Calda became his European residence and studio and eventually the birthplace of the Montici Marbles - 20th century Florentine Mosaic.
Until 1941 he lived as might be expected of an independently wealthy man and a talented artist. He travelled back and forth between Europe and the United States, painted constantly wherever he was, and exhibited his work in various group shows until 1938, when he had his first one-man show at the Maynard Walker Gallery in New York. Critical notices for this show praised the artist for his free handling of the brush, his fine composition, and his use of subtle color in works variously described as nostalgic, classical, and sculptural in feeling. At the time of his first one-man show, perspicacious collectors began to acquire his paintings. Among these are noted the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, and Robert Maynard Hutchins, President of the University of Chicago.
Immediately after Pearl Harbor, in line with family tradition and already a licensed airplane pilot, Blow entered the Navy as a lieutenant in the Air Arm. Overage for combat duty (he was 37), after he had completed his training at Pensacola, he ferried personnel to Europe before being assigned as an instructor at the Air Force Training Base at Kokomo, Indiana. He then became Naval Attache for the Caribbean area and finally was variously posted in San Francisco, Hawaii, and the Philippines; from all these places he flew the "big ones" across the Pacific as far as Shanghai.
Immediately after the war in 1947, he returned to Italy to spend several months there, as had been his habit. He had always been interested in Florentine Mosaics, and had now conceived the idea of setting up a workshop on his own property to revive an art form first developed by the Medici family. Fortunately Piazza Calda escaped the war relatively unscathed, for it became to the art of Pietre Intarsiate (Pietre Dure, Florentine Mosaic) what the gardens of San Marco and the Uffizi had been during the Renaissance.
Because of poor restoration and repair, lack of taste in selecting subjects for small "pictures in stone", compromise in materials used, and the addition of printers' ink or paint to make up for inferior coloration, the art of Florentine Mosaic had almost died out before the advent of World War II. When the war ended, Italy's energies were directed principally to agriculture, electrical power output, and hard industry. There seemed little room for the production of works of art that require years of apprenticeship, costly materials, and the eye of an artist to supervise basic designs and perfection in the finished product.
Richard Blow believed that he could provide what this art needed. With the help of two Italian artists, Constantino Nivola and Eva Carocci, Blow supplied modern designs and, it must be added, a great many dollars. He also suggested the use of an electric saw to reduce the time required to cut stones; but the workers found the hand saw preferable, especially since the stones were often only three millimeters in thickness. In the workshop at the Villa Piazza Calda, Florentine Mosaic came to life again, with the advice and stimulation provided by Lando Bartoli, then the head of the Optifico delle Pietre Dure. The perfectionist requirements of Richard Blow resulted in a series of pictures of dancing girls, still lifes, landscapes, birds, fish, animals, horses, mermaids, sea shells, flowers, fruits, guns, engines, balloons, all of them in marble and semiprecious stones. All of the pictures were worked over long and lovingly, subjected to the artist's final approval, honesty, and faithfully made in the finest stones, and rejected if imperfect. When completed and accepted, each piece was marked with a tiny M stone insert as a Montici signature and signed on the back by Blow himself.
The Optifico or Museo delle Pietre Dure in Florence now contains a great many of Blow's pictures, the only ones considered worthy to hang with works created before the Medici family disappeared. Other Blow pictures, boxes, obelisks, and tabletops enrich the homes of wealthy collectors and his family all over the world. After completing 1500 of these stone masterpieces Richard passed away in 1992 and his workshop in Santa Margherita a Montici will produce no more of his original designs.