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 Ralph Albert Blakelock  (1847 - 1919)

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Lived/Active: New York/California      Known for: luminous landscape and portrait painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in New York City, Ralph Blakelock earned a reputation for nocturnal, misty scenes, especially moonlit landscapes, large oak trees, and Indian encampments.  He also did a small number of floral still lifes.

His work has a mysterious quality, which some associated with the type of music he habitually played on the piano during interludes from his painting.  Towards the end of his career, his paintings became increasingly haunting, a reflection of his insanity brought on by horrible poverty and his inability to support his family of nine children.

He was both a late exponent of the Hudson River School of painting and also of the American West.  He also foreshadowed the romantic, visionary, and modern tendencies that marked the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries.  This romanticism, especially of escapism, was increasingly pronounced towards the end of his career.

Blakelock was the son of a prominent English-born, New York physician, and first took medical studies, but his love of music and art led him away from medicine.  He graduated from the College of the City of New York, studied briefly at Cooper Union, and at the Free Academy of the City of New York.  In 1867, he first exhibited at the National Academy of Design to which he was ultimately elected, after he was incarcerated for insanity.  During this time, he painted a series of New York City scenes, primarily of un-glamorous areas such as his work, Shanties, New York City.  He also painted in Hudson River Style and was in locations that included the Adirondacks and the White Mountain.  It is thought he learned this style during his brief and only art education at Cooper Union.

Primarily self taught, he declined his father's offer to pay for more extensive art schooling, and instead, at age 22, embarked on a three-year (1869-1972) horseback tour of the West.  He lived with plains Indians, painting pictures of their villages, and traveled and painted through the Rockies and the Sierra Nevadas.  In San Francisco and Oakland, he painted city scenes, the tree landscapes, and coastal views, and then he headed south to Mexico.  These western paintings were also in the Hudson River style, although they were rough and more painterly.

Returning to New York, he developed what became his signature expression: quiet, moody, nocturnal scenes accented with bright colors depicting light, and trees silhouetted against the sky.  He had a labor-intensive technique, which was building up of multi layers of thick paint, scraping some away, and "adding more to build a complex tonality". (Zellman 420)

It is said that his real travels were introspective from which he created these moody, dark landscapes, and they did not satisfy the current public taste for uplifting Hudson River style painting.  Ahead of popular taste, his work was overlooked, and crooked dealers took advantage of him.  With the desperation of trying to support his huge family, he sold his work cheaply.  Ironically, many years after his death, his work became so valuable that forgers, including a dealer who changed the signature on canvases of Blakelock's artist daughter, Marian, to that of her father, sold paintings at very high prices by using his signature.  Norman Geske, Director Emeritus of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska, became the authenticator of Blakelock's work, and has seen many, many illegitimate so-called Blakelocks.  Under Geske's direction, a catalogue raisonne has been published that classifies paintings with Blakelock's signature into three categories according to their degree of perceived authenticity.

In 1899, the artist had a mental breakdown and spent the last twenty years of his life in an asylum in Middleton, New York.  He died on August 9, 1919.  However, his work had already begun increasing in value, and by 1916 was bringing as high as $20,000.

Of Blakelock's career, Norman Geske wrote: "Considered in the context of American landscape painting in the second half of the nineteenth century, Ralph Albert Blakelock can be seen first as a late exponent of the Hudson River School, second as a highly personal contributor to the painting of the American West, and third and most important, as part of the romantic, visionary, and modern tendencies that marked the turn of the century."(16)

Sources:
Edan Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940
Michael David Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Norman Geske and Karen Janovy, The American Painting Collection of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery
Matthew Baigell, Dictionary of American Art
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art


This biography from the Archives of AskART:

RALPH ALBERT BLAKELOCK

Ralph Blakelock was born in New York City in 1847.  He was the son of an English-born physician and he first studied medicine, but his love of music and art led him away from medicine.  He graduated from the College of the City of New York, studied briefly at Cooper Union and at the Free Academy of the City of New York.  In 1867, he first exhibited at the National Academy of Design. As a young man, he traveled out West for three years and lived among various Indian tribes, and many of his later works evoked memories of that journey. A tiny man (less than five feet tell, under ninety pounds) he became the father of eight children and he soon crumbled under the pressure of trying to support such a large family.

Blakelock was attracted to the Hudson River painters, Albert Pinkham Ryder's work, and the life of American  Indians which he observed between 1869 and 1871 on an extensive trip that included California, the upper Pacific Coast and down to Panama and Jamaica.  Depicting wilderness areas of the American West, he brought the Hudson River style of painting with expensive vistas that were poetic and visionary. It is said that his real travels were introspective from which he created moody, often dark landscapes that did not satisfy the public taste for uplifting Hudson River style painting.  He was ahead of popular taste and his work was largely overlooked.

After being forced by a collector into selling one of his moonlight canvases  for $200, less than half his normal price, Blakelock took to wandering the streets of New York dressed in full Indian garb.  Then, in utter financial distress, he began manufacturing his own money: million dollar bills decorated with miniature landscapes and his own portrait in the middle.  When he tried to cash one of these bills at a bank, he was finally locked up and sent to an asylum in Brooklyn and later to a hospital in upstate New York, where he spent the last 25 or 30 years of his life.  In the hospital he continued to paint every day, using whatever materials were available: window shades, cigar boxes, pieces of cardboard.

By that time, his wife and children had moved to a rural shack in the Catskills (not far from where Thomas Cole had done some of his finest work) and were reduced to living on $50 a year.  Mrs. Blakelock was so poor that she could not even afford to visit her husband.  In the early 1900s, there was a sudden revival of interest in Blakelock's work, and one of his pictures (the same one that he had sold for $200 in the 1890s) was sold at an auction for almost $14,000 - one of the highest prices paid for a work by a living artist at the time.  The irony was that Blakelock and his family never saw a penny from the sale.  Forgeries of his works sold well, competing with his own in an active market.  Blakelock died in a mental hospital in 1919.

Sources include:
Paul Auster in Art News, September 1987
Butlerart.com

Compiled and written by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California.


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in NYC on Oct. 15, 1847, the son of a prominent physician. His father offered to finance his art studies in Europe; however, at age 22 Blakelock embarked on a six-year horseback trip through the West. He lived among the Plains Indians and sketched across the Rockies and Sierra Nevada While in California, he painted scenes of Oakland, San Francisco, the redwoods, and coastal scenes. From San Francisco he journeyed south toward Mexico and then returned to NYC. He remained a self-taught artist and ultimately was elected to the National Academy. Blakelock was not successful in selling many of his paintings during his career and lived in poverty with his wife and nine children. The strain of supporting such a large family led to a mental breakdown in 1899. The remaining years of his life were spent in a mental institution in Middletown, NY. Recognition came soon after his confinement and paintings he had sold for very little were then resold for thousands. He died on Aug. 9, 1919. Exh: NAD and Society of American Artists, 1879-88; Paris Expo, 1900; PPIE, 1915; Newhouse Gallery (LA), 1927 (retrospective). In: Oakland Museum; Newark (NJ) Museum; St Louis Museum; Worcester (MA) Museum; Whitney Museum (NYC); MM.
Source:
Edan Hughes, "Artists in California, 1786-1940"
Artists of the American West (Samuels); American Western Art (Harmsen); Early Days in the Northwest; NY Times, 8-11-1919 (obituary); Los Angeles Times, 10-2-1927.
Nearly 20,000 biographies can be found in Artists in California 1786-1940 by Edan Hughes and is available for sale ($150). For a full book description and order information please click here.

Biography from Altermann Galleries and Auctioneers, II:
Ralph Blakelock, the son of a New York City doctor, entered the Free Academy of the City of New York in 1864, turning to music and fine arts after one year.  He left college in 1866 to paint landscapes, considering himself to have been self-taught.  By 1867 he was exhibiting realistic paintings in the National Academy, resulting from his Eastern travels, and by 1869 he declined European studies to travel West.  There is no exact record of Blakelock’s movements, but he actually lived among the Indians, working his way to California and through Mexico to Panama and the West Indies.  In the West from 1869 to at least 1872, he made hundreds of sketches.

He returned to New York City about 1876.  His painting style had evolved to the Impressionist, so radically different from his contemporaries that he could not sell his work at all.  One group of 33 paintings was bought by a New York City dealer from the artist for $100.  Blakelock lived in absolute poverty with his wife and nine children, peddling his paintings from door to door, generally without success. Throughout his ordeal, Blakelock maintained his style of pure romanticism, studying crack in the walls as designs, resorting to music to capture a painting mood.

In 1899, he succumbed to the constant economic strain, became violent, and was removed to an asylum near Middletown, New York, where he painted paper landscapes that simulated money in his delusion of immense wealth.  After Blakelock was unable to paint seriously, his romantic work came into vogue, and by 1916 the Toledo Art Museum paid $20,000 at auction for his Brook by Midnight, a painting that Blakelock had sold for less than the cost of the auction catalog.  This acceptance did not benefit the artist in the asylum or his family who had all lived in a one-room shack at the bottom of a Catskill ravine.  When Blakelock’s oldest daughter, Marian, discovered  she could paint as her father had, she sold similar paintings to a dealer who changed her signature to her father’s, driving her into an asylum in 1915. 

The Blakelock story may be the bitterest tragedy in American art, while his major paintings may be the purest, the image of an Indian encampment beneath silhouetted trees before the blue-white moon.

Source:
Peggy and Harold Samuels, The Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West

Biography from GallArt.com:
RALPH ALBERT BLAKELOCK (1847–1919)

Ralph Albert Blakelock was one of the most original and imaginative landscape painters in America at the end of 19th century and in the early 20th century. Born in New York City, Blakelock dropped out of medical school after a year and a half of study to take up painting. Although he had some art classes at Cooper Union, he was mainly self-taught. By the age of twenty, he was painting landscapes in a detailed Hudson River style, and his work was exhibited at the National Academy of Design. In 1869 he traveled through the American West, wandering far from civilization to visit American Indian tribal lands, and in subsequent years, he went to western Mexico and parts of Central America. His journeys resulted in a lifelong fascination with wild and unspoiled nature. He abandoned the realism of conventional landscape painting in favor of evocative views of forests and rivers, silent and still.

Blakelock's visions of the landscape often feature a dark silhouetted foreground thickly painted in pigment that he sometimes mixed with bitumen (coal tar), resulting in a pitch-black effect. Blakelock occasionally included a small figure—sometimes more—within the forested settings of his compositions, such as The Phillips Collection's painting, Figure in a Landscape. The Phillips's canvas, Moonlight, is typical of Blakelock's work, with a dark foreground that contrasts starkly with a background illuminated by moonlight. The cool light shimmers on the surface of rivers or lakes, creating a mood of silence and mystery.

Living in New York and with a large family to support, Blakelock's visionary scenes did not find a ready market, and his endless financial woes eventually led to a mental breakdown. In 1899 Blakelock was placed in an institution and lived in a series of mental hospitals until the end of his life. Yet he did not stop painting, and even though supplies were scarce, his output did not diminish. Reduced to painting on cardboard, fragments of window shades, or wallpaper, Blakelock continued to paint his visionary landscapes. Despite Blakelock's confinement, his paintings gained recognition and became popular well before his death in 1919.

Biography from Thomas Minckler Fine Art:
Ralph Blakelock was born and studied in New York City beginning his career as a late Hudson River School landscape painter.  He made his exhibition debut at the National Academy of Design in 1868, exhibiting there annually until 1873 and sporadically thereafter.  He rose from the ranks of the unknown and untrained to the unlikely status of being the most highly publicized American artist at the turn of the century.  Blakelock spent the years 1869-72 in the West where he painted a number of topographical scenes.

On his return East, he evolved the aesthetic that was to dominate his art: quiet evening scenes with large oak trees silhouetted against a sunset or moonlight glow, often with Indian camps sparkling in the dark beneath.

He returned to New York City about 1876.  His painting style had evolved to the Impressionistic, so radically different from his work at all.  One group of 33 paintings was bought by a New York City dealer from the artist for $100.

Blakelock lived in absolute poverty with his wife and nine children, peddling his paintings from door to door, generally without success.  Throughout his ordeal, Blakelock maintained his style of pure romanticism, studying cracks in the walls as designs and resorting to music to capture a painting mood.  He was apparently predisposed to Melancholia, suffered a mental collapse in 1891 and was institutionalized briefly.  Throughout the 1890s his emotional state gradually deteriorated, manifesting in delusions of grandeur and eccentric dress.  A violent episode in 1899 resulted in the artist's uninterrupted confinement until 1916, after which he was hospitalized periodically until his death.

Ironically the recognition that he had long sought came to him only after he was institutionalized. Upon his death, Ralph Albert Blakelock was the most famous artist in America.  In 1913, he sold a painting for $13,900, the most ever paid for a work by a living America artist.  Three years later, that record was broken when another Blakelock painting was purchased for $20,000.



Biography from Anderson Galleries:
Born in New York City in 1919, Ralph Blakelock became one of the most visionary painters of the late 19thcentury. He was a self taught.

He began exhibiting landscapes in the Hudson River style from 1867. Unlike his contemporaries who went to Europe to further their painting, Blakelock went to the Western United States.

Back in NY after 1872 he began to paint evocative moonlit landscapes. These paintings, although almost never dated, showed moonlit nights with camp fires and solitary figures. His work morphed from Hudson River, tonalism, impressionism and modernism. He baffled critics of the time.

His work is now in over 80 museums worldwide.

Biography from Sheldon Museum of Art:
Following is the text of the exhibition brochure, The Unknown Blakelock, by Sharon Kennedy, Interim Curator, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery. 

Understanding the work of nineteenth-century American painter Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847-1919) has proven elusive despite several exhibitions and publications about his life and art.  As Sheldon Director Emeritus, author, and founder of the Nebraska Blakelock Inventory Project Norman Geske observes, “Essentially self-taught, Blakelock proceeded with an imagination that was singularly free of any allegiance to established procedures, allowing him …to address subjects as diverse as Jamaica, upper Manhattan Island, and the ocean shore-to find new solutions to differing pictorial problems.  In some instances, it is clear he was cognizant of stylistic innovations in the higher artistic community.  At other times it seems his solutions were strikingly in advance of the standard practice of the time.”  Blakelock’s tragic mental illness and the numerous forgeries produced in his style have further obscured the broader artistic accomplishments his critics have largely overlooked.    
                  
The Unknown Blakelock expands our view of the artist’s achievement and confirms his modernist vision by identifying specific examples that enlarge our sense of the breadth and variety of his life’s work.  While the exhibition includes his signature moonlight scenes and Indian encampments, its focus is on lesser-known subjects that may have motivated Blakelock to venture beyond traditional norms and experiment with original methods of painting.

Born in New York City in 1847, Blakelock attended the Free Academy of New York (now City College) in 1864 to prepare for a career in medicine, but grew disillusioned with his course work and left before completing his degree.  He found a mentor in his uncle, James A. Johnson, a self-taught artist and friend of Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church.  In 1865 he joined Johnson at his uncle’s new summer home in Vermont for intensive study.  Blakelock’s diligence led to his being included in an 1867 exhibition at the National Academy of Design-the first of seven successive acceptances.  Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not tour or study in Europe.  Exposure to European art and, according to Geske, interest in the French Barbizon School came to him secondhand.  Blakelock chose to explore the American west instead.  Numerous drawings and sketches attest to the excitement and sense of adventure he found there, undergoing experiences that would influence much of his later work.  In 1877 Blakelock married Cora Rebecca Bailey and soon after fell into financial difficulties.  They had nine children together, one of whom died in infancy.  Shortly after his youngest child’s birth in 1899, Blakelock was hospitalized for what is believed to have been late onset schizophrenia. Although continuing to paint, he was institutionalized for much of the rest of his life.

In the 1860s, still early in his career, Blakelock’s style reflected the Hudson River School painters in its attention to detail, naturalistic color, and gradual atmospheric recession. About his work in this vein, Geske notes that, after proving that he could do it, it was “an accomplishment that did not take.”  By the 1870s a more personal approach emerged, as can be seen in the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery’s painting titled Moonlight, dated in the 1880s (fig. 1).  The painting embodies characteristics of his other famous night pieces but with a difference. “The image is reduced to near abstraction,” Geske notes, “a wholly subjective transformation of experience.  The subject is subsumed within the medium. Oil paint is made to speak for itself.” Venturing into an increasingly individual expressive realm, he nonetheless continued to be included in the more conventional exhibitions of the National Academy, indicating his ability to produce work that met the aesthetic norms he often chose not to follow.

Another example of Blakelock’s characteristic subject matter is Indian Encampment (fig. 2), a scene depicting a single tepee, humans and horses harmoniously placed within their natural surrounding.  Though Blakelock’s western sojourns between1869 and 1872 yielded a group of Indian encampment paintings, a comparison of these works with the objective depictions of George Catlin, Alfred Jacob Miller, and Seth Eastman, for example, makes clear that the West did not transform him into a western artist intent on documenting the landscape or the Native peoples living there.  In Indian Encampment, attention is drawn away from the human dimensions to the brilliant sky and texture-filled land surrounding the camp.  As Geske notes, “The heavy painting of the sky color into the trees creates an imprecise, ‘impressionistic’ sense of form dissolved in atmosphere.”

Blakelock returned from his travels West on a Pacific Mail steamship bound for Panama and New York via the Isthmus.  Geske points out, the artist found something new, “not only in a different subject matter, but a new way of seeing… the enveloping luxuriance of the tropics…” Blakelock seemed comfortable with these digressions in subject and style, Geske writes, digressions that demonstrate a spontaneous creativity in imagery and medium that reach beyond his moonlight and Indian encampment scenes.  Geske notes, for instance, that Blakelock’s Jamaican tropical settings tended to be “sensuous and atmospheric”;  St. Gabriel’s Grotto (fig. 3), depicting a tropical woodland, large rock formation, and native people, is rendered as “a freely brushed screen of varying shades of green that barely suggests the actuality of trees or foliage.”  Unusual in Blakelock’s career, the Jamaican scenes are equally out of the ordinary among American paintings of the time.

Also unique are Blakelock’s shanty drawings and paintings, the outgrowth of excursions in the late 1860s or early ‘70s to sketch in the undeveloped portion of Manhattan north of the upper 50s.  These may be among the first attempts to depict the urban poor in a manner that eschewed the picturesque.  In Shanties, Seventh Avenue and 55th Street (fig. 4), Blakelock emphasizes texture, bright pigments, and spontaneous brushwork, while at the same time conserving the sense of impoverished reality.  According to author Glyn Vincent, Blakelock in these works, “distances himself from the shanty and reduces the squatters’ activity to a lone solitary figure…” Rather than romanticizing his subject, he transforms the scene into a generalized commentary on nature and mortality.  

Blakelock’s bold use of color in his shanty paintings appears as well in his occasional still lifes, most of them depicting flowers.  During the 1870s Blakelock’s choice of subjects and themes, according to curator Mark Mitchell, offers an “indication of his early restlessness with artistic conventions and categories.”  While retaining a degree of realism, some of his still lifes display a higher sense of contrast and oversaturation of color aligning them more closely with his European contemporaries than with his American colleagues.  These works have also been called metaphorical, alluding to their “mystery, romance and loneliness.” Violets (fig. 5) depicts a small white vase of flowers placed in a dark setting, the flowers executed with a light touch and a sense of delicacy and grace.  Geske describes the paintings as “empathetic,” disclosing Blakelock’s personal approach to art.

Yet another departure from his signature works is found in his seascapes. The Sun Serene Sinks into the Slumbrous Sea is one of three seascapes of superior quality known to exist.  Geske describes it as “a veritable fantasia of colored atmosphere”; it is sometimes regarded as Impressionistic because of its light palette, loose and tactile brushstrokes, and its immediacy and out-of-doors feel.  As Vincent points out, “if the paintings Blakelock made in the 1890s prove anything, it is that he was first and foremost an experimentalist, and like some modernists he could switch-hit from naturalism to abstraction from one day to the next.” The painting’s title, moreover, hints at Blakelock’s attachment to music and literature.

Blakelock’s literary interests are more apparent in his fantasy paintings, which Geske considers to be later works because of their extraordinary character…in terms of composition and handling.  Pegasus (fig. 6) portrays the mythological white horse and rider leaping and dissolving into an abstract landscape of textures and colors.  Vincent believes that in his allegorical and literary compositions Blakelock mixed the ideal with the real, abstraction with realism.  When comparing Blakelock’s Pegasus to his contemporary Albert Pinkham Ryder’s painting of the same title, Mark Mitchell considers Blakelock’s piece to be more abstract in texture and color, its white figures rising “to a symbolic or spiritual level.”

Both “critically and tragically” ahead of his time, Blakelock, in Geske’s view, embodies the dilemma of a “lifelong effort to accommodate himself” while “constantly at war with his inclinations and his abilities.”  Despite this warfare, perhaps in some sense, even because of it, the works in The Unknown Blakelock reveal the artist’s expressive uniqueness and vision.

Sources Cited:

The gallery guide is indebted to Norman Geske’s Beyond Madness: The Art of Ralph Blakelock, 1847-1919 (2007); Glyn Vincent’s The Unknown Night: The Genius and Madness of R. A. Blakelock, An American Painter (2002); and Mark Mitchell and Norman Geske’s essays in the exhibition catalog, The Unknown Blakelock (2007).

Sharon L. Kennedy
Interim Curator
Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery

The Unknown Blakelock was organized by the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It will travel also to the National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts and be on view from September 25, 2008-January 4, 2009.  Major support for the Sheldon presentation is provided by the Henry Luce Foundation and the Wyeth Foundation for American Art.  Additional support is provided by Ameritas Charitable Foundation, the Nebraska Arts Council, Ethel S. Abbott Charitable Foundation, and the Nebraska Art Association. The participation of generous museum and private lenders has made this exhibition possible.


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