The Life of the Artist: Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847–1919)
by Nina Sangimino, Senior Researcher
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.” 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.
WESTERN TRIP AND INDIAN ENCAMPMENTS
Blakelock was born on Christopher Street in New York City, on October 15, 1847. Initially intending to follow in his father’s medical footsteps, he enrolled in the Free Academy of the City of New York 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 somewhat common among nineteenth-century artists, 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.
While the expansiveness and wonder of the landscape impressed him, it was the time spent with various American Indian tribes that had a particular effect; Blakelock felt that they provided a mystical and ancient connection to nature. Indian encampments became a major theme in his work, but rather than purely historic scenes, he applied his unique vision to the landscape of the West. His early Western landscapes and primeval forests foreshadowed the style he would later develop, in which mood superseded the importance of geographical detail.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) Indian Hunters, Oil on panel, 11⅝ x 15⅞ inches, Signed in arrowhead lower right: R.A. Blakelock /
HUDSON RIVER SCHOOL STYLE AND SHANTY PICTURES
When Blakelock returned to New York, he listed himself as an artist in the city directory and rented his own studio space. He was exhibiting regularly at the National Academy of Design, and, at first, still emulating the Hudson River School style. 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 common in the works of his contemporaries.
SUCCESSES AND STRUGGLES
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 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.
"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."
—Cora Blakelock, 1908
Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847–1919), Eternal Orb, Oil on board, 5 5/16 x 3 9/16 inches
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. 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 and Frederic Church. The 1884 Society of American Artists exhibition continued his climb to fame as he received recognition in multiple publications, and his paintings were lauded as “among the best works shown.” 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.”
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. Unlike other landscape painters at the time, Blakelock turned totally inward for inspiration. The unique process he developed to create the recognizable silhouettes of 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.
At the same time as this burgeoning success, Blakelock 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.”
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 breakdown and was taken by his brother to Flatbush Insane Asylum. The brief time he spent there served him well, and upon their return home he painted his masterpiece Brook by Moonlight (Toledo Museum of Art). 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. Yet 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 Moonlight sold at auction for $20,000, setting the record for the largest amount ever paid at auction for a living American artist. Later that year, he was finally elected to full membership at the National Academy of Design.
The media uproar that surrounded the record-breaking sale brought the “mad” artist to the attention of the dubious Mrs. Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams. 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 and George Bellows. Sadly, the moneys from the Blakelock Fund mysteriously never reached Cora and the family, and Mrs. Adams was granted increasing custody over the artist. 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.
LEGACY AND INFLUENCE
While he has always remained somewhat on the fringe of mainstream 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. 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. Blakelock’s effect on fellow American artists, such as Franz Kline, Andy Warhol, and Jamie Wyeth, has been far reaching, inspiring succeeding generations to pursue their own vision.