Robert Frederick Blum acquired his reputation as a pen and ink draughtsman, watercolorist, pastellist, etcher, oil painter, and, finally, as a muralist. During his early years in Cincinnati he worked as a lithographer for Gibson and Company, and attended art classes at the Ohio Mechanics Institute and the McMicken School of Design, studying with Frank Duveneck in 1874 and 1875. In the fall of 1876, in the company of Kenyon Cox and Alfred Brennan, he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. After a brief return to Cincinnati, he moved to New York in the winter of 1878. There he quickly found success as an illustrator and watercolorist.
Blum made his first trip abroad in 1880, visiting England, France, and Italy. In Venice he associated with Duveneck and his students, and, most importantly, James Abbott McNeill Whistler. Blum made numerous trips abroad during the course of the 1880s, returning often to Italy. In New York he was active as President of the Society of Painters of Pastel, and, as one of the most adventurous artists among the American avant-garde, he became close friends with William Merritt Chase while continuing his friendship with John Twachtman, with whom he had associated since childhood.
In 1890 Blum made his long hoped-for trip to Japan, where he remained for two years. Upon his return to America, he was commissioned by his great patron, Alfred Corning Clark, to complete a series of murals for the Mendelssohn Glee Club auditorium in New York (now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum). The murals occupied much of his time between 1893 and 1898. After 1892 he curtailed his interest in widely showing his work, living in relative seclusion in Greenwich Village. He died in 1903, in the midst of working with Albert Wenzell on a mural decoration for the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York.
Blum was one of American greatest pen and ink draughtsman of the late 19th century. His devotion to the medium led him in early 1883 to found a short-lived organization in New York dedicated to the medium. Little is known about the activities of the group. Among its members were Edwin H. Blashfield and H. Bolton Jones. An outgrowth of Blum’s activity was his article in 1884 for The Studio on the subject of pen and ink drawing. The article encapsulated Blum’s attitude toward the unique qualities of the medium and sought to differentiate those artists who deeply understood its “legitimate” application, the medium’s “rugged strength and bold assertions,” and “distinct beauty,” and recommended that artists employing the medium work in a wide range of tones. Blum was a great admirer of the pen and ink drawings of the 19th century German artist Adolphe Menzel, and in keeping with his efforts, Blum’s finest works in the medium are characterized by a boldness and vitality of line, an ability to capture and make vibrant the most subtle effects of light and shade, as well as the delineation of textures through his sensitive and refined modeling of forms and details.