Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847–1919)

Iconic Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Painter

By Margarita Karasoulas

Widely regarded as the “mad genius” of the art world, Ralph Albert Blakelock is one of the great visionaries of the nineteenth century, renowned for his fiercely independent style and luminous landscapes that became the hallmark of his pictorial oeuvre.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

“A picture is emotion, not industry.” – Ralph Albert Blakelock1

Born in 1847 in New York City, Ralph Albert Blakelock came from a relatively well-to-do family. His mother, Caroline Carry was American, while his father, Ralph B. Blakelock was born in England. Blakelock’s father was originally employed as a police officer, but he later became a successful homeopathic doctor.2 In 1864, R.A. Blakelock passed competitive entry examinations to attend the Free Academy of the City of New York with aspirations of becoming a physician, though he withdrew from school in February 1866 to pursue a career as an artist.3 His uncle, a music teacher and amateur landscape painter first encouraged him to paint.4 Though he was largely self-taught, Blakelock worked briefly with the landscape painter James A. Johnson, a neighbor and friend of the Hudson River School artist Frederic Edwin Church.5 Blakelock showcased his superior technical abilities and originality from a young age. He began exhibiting at the National Academy of Design in 1867, at the age of twenty, though he would not achieve fame until the end of his life and career.

While most of Blakelock’s contemporaries sought inspiration in Europe, he traveled to the American West, where nature was still untouched and in its primeval glory. From 1869–1871 he visited Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, and went as far as Mexico, Panama, and Jamaica.6 Little is known about his sojourn, except that he traveled alone and on horseback, recording sketches that were later translated to canvas upon his return to the Northeast. These experiences inspired a number of works, particularly his famous Indian encampment scenes, which captured views of Native American tribes from a distance, unseen by the subject. Though Blakelock did not often document their activities or reveal much from an anthropological or historical standpoint, his treatment of these figures was sympathetic and provided a haunting portrayal of an unusual subject during this period.7

In 1877 Blakelock married Cora Rebecca Bailey, whom he had known as a child during summers spent in Vermont with his family. They moved to East Orange, NJ, where he took on a job painting plaques and decorative panels for an art factory in Newark.8 The pair bore nine children during the course of their marriage; this and a lack of patronage contributed to a tremendous financial strain and often abject poverty. Blakelock took on odd jobs and painted smaller-scale works which he sold quickly in order to provide for his family. As a consequence, his works varied widely in quality in style. As his wife explained, “His best work took a long time to complete and in the meantime we had to live. Pictures were painted to keep things going.”9 Blakelock eventually experienced nervous breakdowns and was committed for schizophrenia shortly after the birth of his ninth child in 1899. He spent the remainder of his years in an asylum in Middletown, New York, where he suffered from grand delusions that he possessed a great amount of wealth.10 Ironically, the recognition and success he yearned for throughout his career came after he was institutionalized. Following his breakdown, the art world lauded the mad artist for his ingenuity and creativity, sealing his reputation as one of the most visionary artists of the nineteenth century.

Blakelock is best remembered for his innovations in subject matter and technical execution. Landscapes were an overriding theme and featured panoramic, expansive skies, lush vegetation, and delicately silhouetted trees. In addition to Indian encampments, Blakelock was famous for his moonlit night scenes, rendered with a muted, dark palette and carefully controlled tonalities that earned him the title “painter of darkness.”11 His poetic, evocative works were characteristically infused with mystery, solitude, and mysticism that conveyed a powerful mood to the viewer. Blakelock also experimented with a variety of media such as the petroleum-based pigment bitumen, copal varnish, and talc. He imparted rich, layered textures to the canvas, using broad, impasto brushwork or a staccato-like application of pigments. He also utilized an innovative accretion technique described by his first biographer, Elliot Daingerfield: “When the silvery ground of his picture was hard and dry, he floated upon it more forms, using thin paints much richer in quality of color; when partially dry these were flattened with a palette knife, the forms brought into relief by subtle wipings, and once more allowed to dry. This process was repeated frequently, and when the surface became gummy or over-glazed, he reduced it by grinding with pumice stone. The effect of this would bring the under silver of his first impasto into view, and with this for his key of grey he developed his theme, drawing with the darker and relieving with the under paint.”12

Since few of Blakelock’s works are dated, his stylistic development is difficult to trace; nonetheless, his art represented the confluence of several nineteenth-century art movements. It is generally thought that his early style fell within the confines of the Hudson River School due to his close attention to detail and painterly handling.13 In many ways, however, he deviated from the style’s naturalistic tradition. His scenes were of nondescript locales, less theatrical, and did not always adhere to the photographic realism the Hudson River artists favored. The emotive, individualistic qualities of the Barbizon School were more closely linked with Blakelock’s aesthetic, as were the dramatic, expressive characteristics that found precedence in European Romanticism. Blakelock’s art was anachronistically advanced for his time, forecasting the advent of Modernism in America. While he was frequently compared to several of his Tonalist colleagues, particularly Albert Pinkham Rhyder, his works also possessed subtle nuances that hinted at abstraction.14 Ultimately, Blakelock’s artistic production was highly personal, creative, and subjective, stemming more from his inner vision and imagination than from contemporary and existing trends.

The sensationalism and notoriety that surrounded Blakelock in the years prior to his death signaled his ultimate acceptance by members of the art world. In 1913, a Senator Clark purchased one of his paintings for a record auction price of $13,900. Just three years later, another moonlight scene, Brook by Moonlight secured an even higher record price of $20,000, the highest amount ever paid for the work of a living American artist to that point.15 Critical reception of Blakelock’s works also reached new heights. The influential art critic Edward Alden Jewell announced that “by every right, he deserves a niche equal in importance to the positions held by Winslow Homer, Albert P. Ryder, and Thomas Eakins.”16 By his death in 1919, Blakelock had made rich contributions to the American art scene and was revered as the country’s greatest painter. The life and art of this fascinating, eccentric artist continues to inspire the art world even today. His works are held in every major American museum including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Smithsonian Museum of American Art, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

II. Chronology

1847 Born on October 15th on Christopher Street in New York City.
1864 Passed competitive examinations and entered the Free Academy of the City of New York (now known as the City College of New York).
1866 Withdrew from the Free Academy in February after declining academic performance.
1867 Exhibited for the first time at the National Academy of Design.
1868 Earliest dated work, Sunrise.
1869–1871 Embarked on his first trip to the American West.
1874 Began exhibiting his work in his studio in New York City.
1877 Married Cora Rebecca Bailey. Moved to East Orange, NJ.
1890 Suffered from first mental breakdown.
1899 Birth of ninth child led to a nervous breakdown. Committed to the Long Island Hospital in Flatbush, NY.
1900 Work received Honorary Mention in the Paris Exposition Universelle.
1901 Transferred to the insane asylum in Middletown, NY.
1913 Senator Clarke purchase one of his works for the record price of $13,900.
Elected Associate National Academician by the National Academy of Design.
1916 Best known work, “Moonlight” purchased by the Toledo Museum of Art for the record price of $20,000, the highest price ever paid at the time for the work of a living American artist.
Elected National Academician by the National Academy of Design.
1919 Passed away on August 19th at the age of 72 in a cottage in the Adirondacks.

III. Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
Brooklyn Museum
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Carnegie Museum of Art, PA
Chrysler Museum of Art, VA
Cleveland Museum of Art
Columbia Museum of Art, SC
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Currier Gallery of Art, NH
Detroit Institute of Arts
Figge Art Museum, IA
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Harvard University Art Museums, MA
Joslyn Art Museum, NE
Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Rochester, NY
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, TN
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, MN
Montclair Art Museum, NJ
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of the City of New York
National Academy of Design, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Newark Museum, NJ
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Santa Barbara Museum of Art
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, NE
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC
The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC
Toledo Museum of Art
Wadsworth Athenaeum, CT
Wichita Art Museum
Worcester Art Museum, MA

IV. Exhibitions

1867–1873 National Academy of Design
1874, 1879, 1880 Brooklyn Art Association
1880 Society of American Artists
1882, 1884, 1885 National Academy of Design
1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago
1900 Exposition Universelle, Paris
Lotus Club, New York
1902 Lotus Club, New York
1913 Moulton & Ricketts Gallery, Chicago
Worcester Art Museum
1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, San Francisco
1916 Reinhardt Gallery, New York
Young Art Gallery, Chicago
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Knoedler Gallery, New York
1919 Union League Club, New York
1947 Retrospective, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

V. Memberships

National Academy of Design

VI. Notes

1 “Aged Artist, After 17 Years in Asylum,” The Washington Post, April 16, 1916.
2 Abraham A. Davidson, Ralph Albert Blakelock (University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996), p. 6.
3 David Gebhard, The Enigma of Ralph A. Blakelock, 1847–1919, exh. cat. (Santa Barbara, Calif.: University of California), p. 5.
4 Gail Levin, “Wandering in the American Landscape,” New York Times, March 2, 2003.
5 Mark D. Mitchell, “Radical Color: Blakelock in Context” in The Unknown Blakelock, ed. Karen O. Janovy (Lincoln, Neb.: Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, 2008), p. 30.
6 Levin, “Wandering in the American Landscape.”
7 Janice Driesbach, foreword to The Unknown Blakelock, ed. Karen O. Janovy, p. 15.
8 Piri Halasz, “Art by Blakelock Shown in Trenton,” New York Times, May 18, 1975.
9 Mitchell, p. 33.
10 Ibid, p. 35.
11 Roberta Smith, “Art: The Landscapes of Ralph A. Blakelock,” New York Times, September 11, 1987.
12 Gebhard, p. 17.
13 Ibid, p. 13.
14 Mitchell, pp. 39–41.
15 Davidson, p. 1.
16 Edward Alden Jewell, “Blakelock Work Put On Exhibition,” New York Times, January 13, 1942.

VII. Suggested Resources

Daingerfield, Elliott. Ralph Albert Blakelock. New York, N.Y.: Private print, 1914.
Geske, Norman. Beyond Madness: the Art of Ralph Blakelock, 1847-1919. Lincoln, Neb.: University of
Nebraska Press, 2007.
Vincent, Glyn. The Unknown Night: the Madness and Genius of Ralph A. Blakelock, an American Painter.
New York, N.Y.: Grove Press, 2003.

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Ralph Albert Blakelock