Alexander Gallery, New York
Questroyal Fine Art, LLC, New York
Private collection,Greenville, Delaware
Elizabeth Wilson, review of "The Nature of a Nation: Paintings of the Hudson River School" (Questroyal Fine Art, LLC), ARTnews, May 2008, 149.
Note: This painting has been authenticated and catalogued by theUniversity ofNebraska Inventory as NBI-864, category II
Ralph Albert Blakelock was a visionary artist. Known for his richly painted Indian encampments and haunting moonlight scenes, Blakelock created innovative landscapes that proved too daring for nineteenth-century audiences. Frustrated with his poor sales and burdened with the weight of supporting his ever-expanding family, the artist suffered a mental breakdown in 1899. He was admitted into an asylum in Middletown, New York, where he spent the remaining twenty years of his life. Ironically, it was then that Blakelock moved from inventive outsider to artistic star.
As the twentieth century dawned, Blakelock's work made national headlines and earned record prices. The excitement reached a fever pitch at the 1916 sale of the Catholina Lambert estate, when the Toledo Museum of Art purchased Blakelock's Brook by Moonlight for $20,000. The then-astronomical sum beat out the cost of the European masterworks—the Botticelli, the Rembrandt, the Turner, the three Renoirs, and the six Monets—and set a new record as the highest price ever paid for a painting by a living American artist.
Mist in the Valley is one of Blakelock's rare site-specific works, depicting a well-known area of the Catskills near Kaaterskill Clove and the Catskill Mountain House. The site had captivated the imagination of such authors as James Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving and inspired the first paintings of Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School. Viewed in line with this tradition, Mist in the Valley is a fascinating work: a serene image of one of the nineteenth century's canonical artistic sites, by one of its most unconventional artists.
In fact, Blakelock's early career followed a nearly conventional course: he began painting in a traditionalHudson RiverSchoolstyle and underwent rigorous training at theFreeAcademybetween 1864 and 1866. There he quickly absorbed the essentials of perspective and composition and created detailed, atmospheric views of nature in the style of Cole, Frederic Church, and Sanford R. Gifford. He began exhibiting his paintings alongside their work at the National Academy of Design in 1867, at the age of twenty.
With its fine detail, harmonious composition, and diffuse light, Mist in the Valley reveals that Blakelock had fully mastered the academic standards of the time. The painting bears a unique interweaving of color, texture, and form that Blakelock would push to expressionistic extremes in his later work. Here he builds up the surface of the mountain range by massing dry, textured brushstrokes that convey the aridness of the autumn air. In the foreground, he adds fine, rapid lines of white and black that function as flashes of light and shadow and mark the expressionistic touch of the artist's hand.
Amongst wisplike branches that dart in and out of the dense grass of the foreground, Blakelock paints two figures in precise, thick strokes. The figures lead the viewer into the painting, directing our gaze from the mountain ledge to the sprawling valley below. Dressed in the clothing of nineteenth-century dandies, the men could be tourists surveying the scene or artists looking to transform it into a painted image. They could represent any number of artists who worked in the Catskills, from Church to Gifford, accompanied by a younger artist whom we know to have painted the scene: Blakelock himself. Their presence shifts the focus of the painting from nature to the experience of looking at nature. They give form to the subjectivity that is so prevalent in Blakelock's work, as he filters this traditionalHudson RiverSchool view through his visionary sensibility.
Blakelock's art was the subject of a major retrospective held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1947 and is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
 Glyn Vincent, The Unknown Night: The Genius and Madness of R .A. Blakelock, an American Painter (New York: Grove Press, 2003), 5.