Ralph Albert Blakelock

Ralph Albert Blakelock (October 15, 1847 – August 9, 1919) was a romanticist American painter known primarily for his landscape paintings related to the Tonalism movement.

Ralph Blakelock was born in New York City on October 15, 1847. His father was a successful physician. Blakelock initially set out to follow in his footsteps, and in 1864 began studies at the Free Academy of the City of New York (now known as the City College). He dropped out after his third term, opting to forgo formal education. From 1869–72 he traveled alone through the American West, wandering far from American settlements and spending time among the American Indians. Largely self-taught as an artist, he began producing competent landscapes, as well as scenes of Indian life, based on his notebooks he filled while traveling and on his personal memories and feelings. Blakelock’s works were exhibited in the National Academy of Design.

In 1877 Blakelock married Cora Rebecca Bailey; they had nine children. In art, Blakelock was a genius, yet, in business dealings and in monetary transactions he proved a failure. He found it difficult, if not crushing to maintain and support his wife and children. In desperation he found himself selling his paintings for extremely low prices, far beneath their known worth. In hopes of lifting his family from abject poverty, reportedly on the day his 9th child was born, Blakelock had offered a painting to a collector for $1000. The collector made a counter offer and after refusing the proposed sum Blakelock found himself in a bitter argument with his wife. After the domestic dispute, Blakelock returned to the patron and sold the painting for a much lesser sum. Defeated and frustrated, it is said he broke down and tore the cash into pieces. And so it was after such repeated failed business transactions that he began to suffer from extreme depression and eventually show symptoms of mental frailty.

Blakelock suffered his first mental breakdown in 1891, while living with his brother in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. For financial assistance, he began selling his paintings, including 30 to 40 to vaudeville performer Lew Bloom between 1889 and 1892. His depression manifested in schizophrenic delusions in which he believed himself immensely wealthy – perhaps a compensation for his long struggle to provide for his family. In 1899, he suffered his final breakdown and spent almost the entire remaining twenty years of his life in mental institutions.

Almost as soon as Blakelock went into the first psychiatric hospital, his works began to receive recognition. Within a few years the paintings he had once sold for next to nothing were resold for several thousand dollars. In 1916, Blakelock was made an Academician of the National Academy of Design. Meanwhile, Blakelock languished in the mental asylum of Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital, whose administration and staff were unaware of his fame as an artist, and who viewed his belief that his paintings were in major museums as one more sign of his illness. While confined he continued to paint in ink, painting on the backs of cardboard and various supports, substituting bark and his own hair for brushes.

In 1916, one of Blakelock’s landscapes sold at auction for $20,000, setting a record for a painting by a living American artist. It was this impressive price that captured the imagination of Sadie Filbert, who had reinvented herself as the socially prominent Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams so that she could swindle the wealthy by persuading them to donate to charitable causes that would, in fact, serve to enrich herself. She founded and milked the Blakelock Fund, which was supposed to support the impecunious artist and his needy brood. She informed Harrison Smith, then a young reporter with the New York Tribune, of Blakelock’s whereabouts, and he went to see Blakelock in the asylum. He found him largely lucid, although under the delusion that an imagined “diamond of the Emperor of Brazil” had been stolen from him. Smith explained to the asylum director who Blakelock was, and managed to arrange to bring Blakelock and the director to Manhattan, where a major gallery retrospective of Blakelock’s work was taking place. Blakelock was awed by the changes in the city in the two decades since he had last seen it, and thrilled to see the recognition his work had received. Smith scored himself a major news story. (In a 1945 account, Smith added that Blakelock had quietly informed him that several of the paintings were forgeries, but Smith chose not to put that in his story because of the question of how far he could rely on the word of the less than fully sane Blakelock.) These events led to Blakelock’s release from the asylum, in the “care” of Sadie Filbert, alias Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams, who milked him for all he was worth.

He continued painting until his death at the age of 71 on August 9, 1919.

Blakelock was one of the most original and ingenious landscapes in America at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century .

The most characteristic for him are innovations concerning the presented motifs and their technical implementation. The main motif of his paintings were landscapes, especially the night scenes, thanks to which he became known as the “painter of darkness” . His landscapes are usually juicy and bright, filled with suggestive atmospheric effects. they represent foggy backgrounds illuminated by moonlight. The artist’s palette was minimal, characterized by warm shades of brown, green, airy yellowy and muted gray. When the artist was in a mood of depression and despair, it often influenced his work, which took on a melancholy climate. Blackelock was attracted by both reality and the spiritual sphere. In many of his paintings, the subject is never completely obvious, the creator’s efforts to give a message or tell a story are not visible in them; instead, the artist with colors, forms and lines creates an intriguing, visual poem .

Blakelock also experimented with various substances, such as petroleum-based bitumen pigment, varnish with the addition of copal and talc. He applied rich, multi-layered textures to the canvas, using the impasto technique and a wide brush, or applying a staccato- like pigment . Applying successive layers of pigment and ribbing its surface with a painting spatula, he gave his canvases a very expressive character. Often scraped with the pumice stone surface of the paint thus obtaining a brighter shade of the underpainting and giving the images a soft, radiant brightness .

Since only a few of Blakelock’s works are dated, tracing its stylistic development is difficult, nevertheless his art represents the contact of several nineteenth-century artistic movements. It is generally believed that his early style is located within the Hudson River School because of the particular attention to painting. However, the artist, in various ways, departed from the style of naturalistic tradition. His scenes were placed in unspecified places, they were less theatrical and did not always adhere to photographic realism, preferred by Hudson River School artists. Blakelock’s aesthetics corresponded more to the emotional, individualistic features of the painting of the Barbizon schoolbecause they were dramatic and expressive and had their roots in European Romanticism. Although Blakelock was often compared to some tonalists, especially to Albert Pinkham Ryder, his works also had some subtle nuances that indicated abstraction. Ultimately, Blakelock’s work had a very personal, creative and subjective character, it resulted more from his inner vision and imagination than from modern, prevailing trends .

Blakelock’s works can be found in every major American museum, including the Brooklyn Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the National Gallery of Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Phillips Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery, Toledo Museum of Art, Wadsworth Atheneum .

Blakelock taught himself to paint through trial and error, and continued to use improvisation as an artistic method throughout his life. He was also an accomplished musician, and would use his improvised piano compositions as inspiration for his paintings. He would work on paintings for years, building layers and then scoring, scraping, or rubbing them away.

Blakelock’s early landscapes have their genesis in the style of the Hudson River school of painters. In time, he developed a more subjective and intimate style. His favorite themes were those depicting the wilderness and solitude; evocative and emotional paintings of illuminated moments in nature, of moonlit landscapes and twilight hours and Indian camps in the solitude of nature. He was also heavily influenced by the French Barbizon School, whose painters also favored dark forests and heavily worked surfaces. Blakelock’s technique was highly personal and through his individualistic style his paintings summoned the viewer into a luminous, almost other worldly realm. In the majority of his paintings, space is given depth by the use of light; moonlight most often. Along with his contemporary Albert Pinkham Ryder, Ralph Albert Blakelock was one of the most individual American painters of his time.

One of his many paintings entitled Moonlight was sold at the highest price ever paid for the work of a living American artist at that time. Sadly, his rise in public notoriety along with the increase in his art sales never benefited his family or himself. By 1903 his works were being forged, so much so, that he remains today as “perhaps the most forged” artist in America. Such was the final ironic touch to one of the most tragic stories in American art.

In popular culture
Blakelock is a key figure in the setting of Paul Auster’s novel Moon Palace.

Source from Wikipedia