Collection of Senator Frederick S. Gibbs, New York
Countess Sophie Vavlitis, New York
Adelson Galleries, Inc., New York
Michael Altman Fine Arts & Advisory Services, LLC,New York, 2001
Questroyal Fine Art, LLC, New York
Private collection, California, 2002
Questroyal Fine Art, New York, Ralph Albert Blakelock: The Great Mad Genius, November–December 2005
Frederick S. Gibbs, Paintings by Ralph Albert Blakelock in the Private Collection of Frederick S. Gibbs (New York, 1901), n.p., as Midwinter.
Ralph Albert Blakelock: The Great Mad Genius, exh. cat. (New York: Questroyal Fine Art, 2005),p. 20, pl. 9.
Note: This painting has been authenticated and catalogued by theUniversity ofNebraska
Inventory as NBI-1830, category I.
In the early twentieth century the paintings of Ralph Albert Blakelock set American auction records, and he was the subject of countless headlines. In 1916, at the Catholina estate sale, his Moonlit Scene outsold works by Botticelli, Rembrandt, Renoir, Monet, and Pissarro. The art world was stunned, as an insane but incredibly creative American had risen above Europe's most iconic painters. By mid-century critics were exuberantly praising his talent. Edward Alden Jewell called Blakelock "one of the greatest artists America has produced," and also proclaimed "by every right he deserves a niche equal in importance to the positions held by Winslow Homer, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Thomas Eakins." In reviewing the first major Blakelock retrospective, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, prominent art critic Robert Coates said that Blakelock was the "strongest individualist" in American art history.
The "Blakelock effect" extended to the artists who succeeded him. Andy Warhol collected his paintings and Jamie Wyeth reportedly purchased a Blakelock from Warhol. Glyn Vincent, author of The Unknown Night: The Genius and Madness of R. A. Blakelock, reported that one of Franz Kline's favorite artists was Blakelock and that William Merritt Chase and Robert Henri were also great admirers. Vincent also noted that the great Ashcan School painter George Bellows called Blakelock a genius who had "made a strong impression not only upon American art, but upon the art of the world." The great modernist painter Marsden Hartley believed that Blakelock was worthy of inclusion as a "plausible basis for genuine American art." Today, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, interest in Blakelock has not diminished: the "great mad genius" is the subject of three major books, numerous catalogues, and a traveling exhibition entitled "The Unknown Blakelock" at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska, Lincoln (January–April 2008); and National Academy of Design, New York (October 2008–January 2009).
Basically self-taught, Blakelock received only brief instruction from a minor artist who was a friend of Frederic Edwin Church. His earliest canvases are consistent with the Hudson RiverSchoolstyle in that they do not deviate from a literal transcription of nature, yet they belie a creative impulse that subtly becomes apparent. An Afternoon in the Mountains and Mountain Pool, produced at this time, are realistic representations of American scenery, but upon closer inspection, reveal evidence of an altered rhythm in the brushwork as it yields to an undefined but heightened emotionalism, suggestive of Blakelock's inevitable interest in creative expression. He further deviates from tradition by producing images of "nowhere." His artistic impulse is not limited or diluted by the characteristics of or associations with a specific site. He is not interested in the romantic presentation or preservation of place, unlike theHudson RiverSchool leader Thomas Cole, whose Romantic vision is a very celebration of a sense of place.
Blakelock chose to explore the American West without the aid of military expeditions, and he did not interact with other painters to any significant extent. His individualism grew untempered as a result of his degree of isolation and began to find its most important expression during and after his return from the West. The soul of his work, unlike that of virtually every other painter, is rooted in the American landscape and the consciousness of its inhabitants. He never went to Europeand had no interest in or experience of European culture; his nature was infused with the melancholy of the Native American experience and the very essence of the American wilderness. As art historian Lloyd Goodrich wrote, "In a day when most of his generation had their eyes fixed on Europe, he almost alone remained aware of this ancient element in the American consciousness."
Blakelock's true genius was his ability to lay open the depths of his soul and communicate a charged sentiment with every stroke of his brush and layer of his glazes. Consider the sheer drama of Sunshine in the Woods: every element of this forest cavity is in a state of frenzy. The raw earth churns and separates, limbs are intertwined and life-giving water rushes to the surface from an unknown source. If one looks deeper, forms—perhaps spirits—emerge from the fauna. The moment is supremely primeval, akin to creation itself. This is the quintessential Blakelock, a work of pure, unrestrained imagination; his first biographer, Elliott Dangerfield, used the term "barbaric" to describe the depth of his colors. He was a painter who saw the raw underlayer of things, the coarse earth closest to creation and furthest from a "cultured" perspective. Goodrich substantiates this description, noting that the artist was "haunted by the forest, the primeval background of early America, with its savage inhabitants, its mystery and terror."
Blakelock sifted the product of his imagination through all the dimensions of his character and intellect, and the resulting vision flowed from mind to brush unchecked and unedited. He did not find his vision from what he saw but rather from what he felt, perceived, and imagined. This concept marked a major departure from accepted artistic convention. Asher B. Durand urged his contemporaries to seek truth in nature, and John Ruskin believed that truth could be found only by strict adherence to detail. Blakelock is best understood as a visionary painter. He is often linked to the Tonalists or theBarbizonSchool, but his use of color and texture, as well as the character of his brushwork, disqualify him as anything other than a visionary.
Some of his best works appear to be remnants of a dream. They are filled with an "otherworldly" mood and seem just beyond any known reality. Cabin in Winter is such a painting—a rare snow scene set as much in the light of day as the twilight of night and of this world as it is of the next. It looks back to the purity of his Indian landscapes and perhaps optimistically suggests the belief that settlers might achieve the same degree of harmony.
In his mature work, Blakelock rose to the apex of his ability. His genius exploded onto the canvas without a trace of inhibition or self-restraint. The source of his paintings' potency is the very simplicity of his aspiration. He was equal parts genius and child, and from these seemingly disparate qualities an American original emerged. Blakelock was an artist who broke through and took art to a new place. Today, the art world continues to revere Blakelock and his contribution to American art, following the fine art dealer William Macbeth's belief that "few American artists deserve a higher niche in the temple of fame."
The works of Ralph Albert Blakelock are in nearly every major American museum, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
. Glyn Vincent, The Unknown Night: The Genius and Madness of R. A. Blakelock, An American Painter (New York: Grove Press, 2003), p. 7.
. Edward Alden Jewell, "Blakelock Work put on Exhibition," New York Times, January 13, 1942; quoted in ibid., p. 305.
. Robert M. Coates, "Blakelock," New Yorker, May 3, 1947; quoted in Vincent, Unknown Night, p. 305.
. Vincent, Unknown Night, p. 303.
. Quoted in ibid., p. 304.
6. See ibid.; Norman A. Geske, Beyond Madness: the Art of Ralph Albert Blakelock, 1847–1919 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007); Karen O. Janovy, ed., The Unknown Blakelock, exh. cat. (Lincoln: Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, 2008); this catalogue was produced in conjunction with the traveling exhibition, "The Unknown Blakelock," Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, January–April2008; National Academy of Design, New York, September–January 2008.
. Lloyd Goodrich, Ralph Albert Blakelock Centennial Exhibition (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1947), p. 14; quoted in Mark Mitchell, "Radical Color: Blakelock in Context," in Janovy, ed., The Unknown Blakelock, p. 34.
. Elliot Dangerfield, Ralph Albert Blakelock (New York: Frederic Fairchild Sherman, 1914), p. 8; quoted in Mitchell, "Radical Color," p. 31.
. Goodrich, Ralph Albert Blakelock, p. 14.
. Macbeth Gallery, "Few American Artists," Art Notes (April 1900): 199; quoted in Vincent, Unknown Night, p. 233.