Artist Spotlight: Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847–1919)

Published on May 22nd, 2020 | Posted in Essays

By Nina Sangimino

There will soon be held in New York an exhibition of paintings which will be of unusual interest, since it will recite, in terms of weird tonality, one of the saddest romances of American art — the story of a man whose genius and ambition enabled him to master his profession without the aid of instructors, who dreamed strange dreams and told them in remarkable color schemes till the tread of reason broke under the strain, and who now languishes in an asylum, his former art scarcely a recollection.[1]

At the time of his death on August 9, 1919, Ralph Albert Blakelock was hailed by the London Times as “one of the greatest of American artists.”[2] Yet he had spent almost all of the previous eighteen years confined to a mental institution, separated from a family who was living in extreme poverty, and without access to the art materials he had used to create his masterpiece moonlight scenes. Despite these hardships, he created an incredibly unique, visionary, and modern body of work that continues to inspire audiences a century later.

Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847–1919), Captive, oil on panel, 7 x 11⅝ inches, signed lower right: R. A. Blakelock; on verso in arrowhead: R. A. B.

Blakelock was born on Christopher Street in New York City, on October 15, 1847, to an English carpenter, who would later serve as a police officer before becoming a homeopathic doctor. His uncle James A. Johnson, a choirmaster with such influential acquaintances as James Renwick Brevoort (1832–1918) and Frederic Church (1826– 1900), became Blakelock’s cultural mentor, introducing him from a young age to music and painting.[3] Initially intending to follow in his father’s medical footsteps, Blakelock enrolled in the Free Academy of the City of New York (later City College) in September 1864. Although he excelled in drawing classes, they proved uninspiring for the burgeoning artist, and in 1866 he dropped out to begin painting full time. He first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1867, and two years later set out on his inaugural Western trip. This journey proved to be crucial to his artistic vision and an influence on his work for the rest of his life. While cross-country trips were becoming some-what common among nineteenth-century artists, most famously Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) and Thomas Moran (1837–1926), they were typically embarked on as part of government sponsored expeditions. Blakelock, however, traveled alone. By railroad and stagecoach he made his way through the territories of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.[4] While the expansiveness and wonder of the landscape impressed him, as it did other artists, it was the time spent with various American Indian tribes that had a particular effect. From Fort Pierre in present-day South Dakota, he traveled into the wilderness alone on horseback and spent time with tribes of the Great Sioux Nation.[5] At a moment when Native Americans were still holding onto many of their traditional practices as white expansion was rapidly taking hold around them, Blakelock felt that they provided a mystical and ancient connection to nature. Indian encampments became a major theme in Blakelock’s work, but rather than purely historic scenes, like those created by George Catlin (1796–1872), Blakelock applied his unique vision to the landscape of the West. As Mark Mitchell describes, “they were documents of his experience and observations, but with time they became documents of his memory, as well as the memory of the nation at large.”[6] His early Western landscapes and primeval forests foreshadowed the style he would later develop, in which mood superseded the importance of geographical detail.

Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847–1919), The Enchanted Forest, oil on panel, 14⅜ x 19 15/16 inches, signed lower right in arrowhead: R. A. Blakelock

When Blakelock returned to New York he listed himself as an artist in the city directory and rented his own studio space.[7] He was exhibiting regularly at the National Academy of Design, and, at first, still emulating the Hudson River School style. It was during this time that he painted the extraordinary Indian Encampment Along the Snake River (1871, American Museum of Western Art — The Anschutz Collection).[8] Working in the city, he drew inspiration from the landscape surrounding him just as he had on his travels. Inspired by urban life, he continued to forge his own path. Beginning in the 1860s and persisting after his return to New York, Blakelock ventured to the undeveloped northern edges of the city (at that time the area surrounding 55th Street and into Central Park) and painted the shanties growing up out of earth. These works began to take on a looser and more expressive style, and again focused on a unique existence, unlike the scenes of leisure present in the works of his contemporaries.

In 1877, he married Cora Rebecca Bailey and they welcomed the first of nine children. The young artist struggled to support his new and quickly growing family. He sometimes took jobs as an art teacher and later would paint plaques at E. C. Meekers Art Novelty Shop in New Jersey while he and his family lived nearby in East Orange.[9] He produced many small, swiftly finished works for the purpose of a quick sale, and at times, in the interest of generating cash, undervalued his paintings and sold them for far too little. Described by Cora in a 1908 letter to art dealer Robert Vose, “His best work took a long time to complete and in the meantime he had to live. Pictures were painted to keep things going. He could paint a really good picture in less time than anyone else I ever saw.”[10]

Financial success eluded him, in part because he sold his art directly rather than through a gallery or dealer. Despite this, he managed to garner a fair amount of prestige and his work was sought by some of the most important collectors, including Catholina Lambert, Thomas B. Clarke, Senator William A. Clark, William T. Evans, and Lew Bloom, a popular vaudeville star. In 1879, Blakelock received his first review, which appeared in the New York Times, for works hanging at the National Academy of Design. In 1883, he moved into the prestigious Tenth Street Studio Building, alongside such masters as William Merritt Chase (1849–1916) and Frederic Church. The 1884 Society of American Artists exhibition continued his climb to fame as he received recognition in the Tribune and Mail Express, and his paintings were lauded by the World as being “among the best works shown,” and in the Times as “rich and powerful.” Clarence Cook of the Tribune wrote that it was “the best work of his which we have seen, marked not only by rich coloring, but by the possession of a distinctive character.”[11]

Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847–1919), Hawley, Pennsylvania, oil on canvas, 25½ x 36⅜ inches, signed lower right: RABlakelock

Unanimously identified as a colorist by reviewers, it was during this period of mounting achievement that Blakelock began to focus on his most celebrated and iconic moonlight scenes. He departed from copying a real place and instead imagined landscapes, using color and technique to create a mood and evoke a powerful response in the viewer. This was unlike other landscape painters at the time. Even Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847–1917), to whom he was typically linked in critical reviews, used strong literary references as inspiration, whereas Blakelock turned totally inward for inspiration. The unique process he developed to create the recognizable silhouettes of his lace-like trees against a silvery, glowing moonlit sky placed an emphasis on abstraction and expression, and his focus on material and surface were surprisingly modern for the 1880s. He worked in multiple layers of paint and varnish, and rubbed and scraped into his works to create a landscape totally unlike the Hudson River School–inspired works of his early years:

But the man was a born colorist, and he secured tones and combinations of pigment that few have discovered. His process was slow and laborious; sometimes years would elapse from the beginning to the end of his pictures, and many years at that. He piled on pigment and he scraped, he varnished and he repainted, and he was likely at the last to completely change his theme once he had the proper foundation of paint on the canvas or panel…. It was feeling, pure and simple, like the improvisations of some gifted musician, who secures the harmonies and sweetness of his instrument unconsciously and intuitively.[12]

At the same time as this burgeoning success, he was still struggling both financially and personally. In 1886, the popular Harper’s Weekly singled out his A Waterfall, Moonlight (The Metropolitan Museum of Art) displayed at the National Academy of Design, and hailed it as “the best landscape in the exhibition,” the author admitting “an unmixed surprise at seeing attributed to him a landscape so powerful.”[13] But it was also the year of the birth of his fifth child and, tragically, the death of his two-year-old daughter. The stress continued to mount until March 1890, when he suffered his first mental break-down and was taken by his brother to Flatbush Insane Asylum. The brief time he spent there served him well and when he was released Catholina Lambert allowed Blakelock, Cora, and their four children to come to his estate in Hawley, Pennsylvania, to convalesce. Upon their return to New York, Blakelock began working out of fellow artist and later president of the National Academy of Design Harry Watrous’s (1857–1940) studio in the Sherwood Building. It was here that Blakelock painted his masterpiece Brook by Moonlight (Toledo Museum of Art, FIG. 2 in Mitchell, “Blakelock in the Eyes of Artists”). Blakelock enjoyed a few years respite where he continued painting and exhibiting, but the family moved constantly, including stints with Cora’s parents in Brooklyn. In 1899, on the day of the birth of his ninth child, he was again admitted to Long Island State Hospital at Flatbush. He was finally taken to Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital in June 1901, where he was treated for dementia praecox, equivalent to the modern diagnosis of schizophrenia; he would remain there almost continuously until his death. Initially confined to a secluded ward and treated with hot baths that were meant to have a calming effect, he was soon placed in an open ward where he had the freedom to move about the grounds and even the nearby village.[14] He continued to find inspiration in his surroundings and sketched and painted with whatever meager materials were available to him; many works from this period are on scrap pieces of wood, board, and cigar box lids. Ironically, the moment of his greatest triumph came while he was confined to Middletown. In 1916, Brook by Moon-light sold at auction from the Catholina Lambert collection for $20,000, setting the record for the largest amount ever paid at auction for a living American artist.[15] Later that year he was finally elected to full membership at the National Academy of Design.

Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847–1919), Landscape with White Sky, oil on panel, 6 9/16 x 8⅝ inches, signed lower left in arrowhead: R. A. Blakelock

The media uproar that surrounded the record-breaking sale of Brook by Moonlight brought the “mad” artist to the attention of the dubious Mrs. Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams.[16] She decided to champion Blakelock and organized a Blakelock Fund, supposedly to help support the artist and his family, and mounted the landmark Reinhardt Galleries exhibition. Dr. Maurice Ashley, superintendent at Middletown, agreed to release Blakelock into Mrs. Adams’s care for the day so that he could attend the opening. The media coverage was remarkable and attracted more than 2,500 visitors in only two weeks, among them European royalty and influential modern artists Robert Henri (1865–1929) and George Bellows (1882–1925).[17] Sadly, the monies from the Blakelock Fund mysteriously never reached Cora and the family, and Mrs. Adams was granted increasing custody over the artist, moving him without his wife’s or children’s knowledge and denying their requests to visit him. Her publicity savvy did however succeed in getting Blakelock’s name on the front pages of newspapers nationwide, and at the time of his death he was so well known that President Woodrow Wilson sent his regrets that he could not attend the funeral.[18]

While he has always remained somewhat on the fringe of main-stream American art history, as he did in life, Blakelock has been rediscovered and celebrated by every generation in the century since his death. In 1947, he was honored with an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art curated by Lloyd Goodrich. In 1969, David Gebhard and Phyllis Stuurman organized the traveling exhibition The Enigma of Ralph A. Blakelock, 1847–1919, and Dr. Norman Geske began the monumental task of identifying and cataloguing works by the prolific artist. In 1996, Abraham Davidson published the most complete monograph on the artist, followed in 2003 by the acclaimed biography The Unknown Night: The Genius and Madness of R. A. Blakelock, An American Painter by Glyn Vincent. Questroyal Fine Art, whose owner Louis M. Salerno has recognized the brilliance of Blakelock for decades, mounted a major exhibition on the artist in 2005, which for the first time in the gallery’s history sold all available paintings on opening night. The most recent examination of the artist was nearly eight years ago in a show co-organized by the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and National Academy Museum. As discussed in this catalogue by Dr. Mark D. Mitchell, Blakelock’s effect on fellow American artists has been far reaching, inspiring succeeding generations to pursue their own vision, or as critic James William Pattison stated in 1912, “The sound of it has continued to vibrate and will continue. Blakelock felt a tingle of this irritant; felt it, and then invented his own style under the stimulus. Blakelock has no imitators, but he also sent out vibrations, which tingle in other artists’ nervous systems.”[19]

Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847–1919), Teepee at Sunset, oil on panel, 5½ x 10 inches, signed lower right in arrowhead: RABlakelock

[1] Frederick W. Morton, “Work of Ralph A. Blakelock,” Brush & Pencil 9 (February 1902): 257.

[2] “Famous Painter’s Death,” Times (London), August 13, 1919, 9.

[3] Glyn Vincent, The Unknown Night: The Madness and Genius of R. A. Blakelock, An American Painter (New York: Grove Press, 2003), 55–56.

[4] Susielies M. Blakelock, “Western Sojourn,” in Ralph Albert Blakelock 1849 [sic]–1919 (New York: M. Knoedler & Co., 1973), 27.

[5] Vincent, 98.

[6] Mark D. Mitchell, “Radical Color: Blakelock in Context,” in The Unknown Blakelock, ed. Karen O. Janovy (Lincoln, NE: Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, 2008), 47.

[7] Vincent, 110.

[8] In 2000, Indian Encampment Along the Snake River set the artist’s current auction record at $3,525,750.

[9] Vincent, 167.

[10] Ibid., 166.

[11] Ibid., 159.

[12] “A careful and sympathetic critic of him some years ago … who knew intimately the man,” quoted in Morton, “Work of Ralph A. Blakelock,” 264.

[13] “The Academy of Design,” Harper’s Weekly 30 (November 27, 1886): 760.

[14] David D. Blakelock, “The Confinement Period,” in Ralph Albert Blakelock 1849 [sic]– 1919, 22.

[15] Lloyd Goodrich, Ralph Albert Blakelock: Centenary Exhibition (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1947), 35.

[16] See “The Real Mrs. Adams” in Vincent, 254–266.

[17] Vincent, 254.

[18] Ibid., 297.

[19] James William Pattison, “The Art of Blakelock,” Fine Arts Journal 27 (October 1912): 645.