After many years of lingering backstage, with only sporadic moments of applause, Ralph Albert Blakelock has re-emerged into the spotlight. Questroyal Fine Art’s recent exhibition, Ralph Albert Blakelock: The Great Mad Genius Returns, and its companion catalogue, have offered art historians and artists alike an opportunity to reappraise Blakelock’s pivotal role in the evolution of twentieth-century art in America. Blakelock (1847–1919) broke the conventions of the Hudson River School and pushed past the limits of Impressionism to lay the foundations for Abstract Expressionism.
Blakelock was a quintessentially American artist. He was born in 1847, in a crowded tenement building at 166 Christopher Street, in New York City. He began his life living a borderline existence between poverty and middle-class respectability but rapidly became an accomplished musician and a member of the choir of the Episcopal Church. He developed into a respected painter whose work was exhibited at the National Academy. He abandoned studies at the Free Academy of the City of New York (now City College) to become a full-time, self-taught artist, eventually sharing space in the Tenth Street Studio Building, the residence of William Merritt Chase, Fredric Church, and dozens of other artists. There, he painted oil sketches of shanties near Manhattan’s 59th Street and in Harlem with expressive bold brushstrokes in moody, modulated tones.
Unlike many American artists of the time, Blakelock never studied art in Europe. He instead traveled into the wilderness of the American West, seeking to find his own voice, which he did. He dwelt among Native Americans and painted images like the Indian Encampment at Twilight, which depicted indigenous peoples living in harmony with the environment. Blakelock’s landscapes evolved into images that were no longer just about depicting a particular place but rather about being in a particular place at a particular moment, about using paint to abstractly portray a subjective emotional experience, about a state of mind. Raymond Wyer, an art critic of the era, believed Blakelock much more than a landscape painter, writing, “No artist has used the landscape as means to an end more than he.”
Eventually returning to New York, Blakelock married and struggled to support nine children as a painter. After the birth of his fifth child and the death of his two-year-old daughter, Blakelock spent some time in the Flatbush Insane Asylum, the first of a series of mental breakdowns. These intermittent periods of depression alternated with periods of great creativity.
After an evening of listening to Beethoven, Blakelock painted his Moonlight Sonata, which now hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It is a haunting example of Blakelock’s Swedenborgian pantheistic view of nature evident in his landscapes and moon paintings, which became recurring themes in his artwork. Art critics wrote that his paintings inspired music in the souls of their viewers. Blakelock described his creative process in exactly the reverse order: music inspired his paintings.
With brushstrokes moving to a rhythm of his own, with colors in harmony with the melodies of his moods, Blakelock’s images emerged from a hard, dry silvery ground, an underpainting consisting of plaster, French chalk, and a talc-type gesso. His daughter, Ruth, reported that he applied the mixture with uneven strokes, rubbed it dry to eliminate the rougher ridges, and ran water over the surface to produce a smooth but random, textured result. He applied countless layers of opaque and transparent pigments combined with oil and a specially-devised “Blakelock” varnish, allowing them to congeal into gummy over-glazed textures. He rubbed, flattened, and scraped with a painting knife and ground the results with a pumice stone until a hint of the original impasto was visible. On that middle tone base, he painted darker and scratched lighter in the additive process he preferred. Other artists rushed to purchase the “Blakelock” formula varnish.
Blakelock fought with his paint until his images magically evolved into the mystical, musical nocturnes of silence he sought. He fought with his paint until the images of his imagination finally shimmered with an intimate, internal realism all their own. “In his landscapes,” observed Blakelock scholar Norman A. Geske, “the skies, trees and waters became abstractions of these natural elements. Color, drawing and texture, light and space become self sufficient elements in his work.”
Blakelock originally sold his Brook by Moonlight to a collector for $500. In 1916, it was purchased at auction for $20,000, at the time, the highest price ever paid for the work of a living American painter. More than 2,500 curious viewers flocked to attend the first two days of a record-breaking exhibition of Blakelock’s work at the Reinhardt Gallery, in New York.
In spite of his sporadic emotional instability, Blakelock was present at the opening. The event’s self-serving sponsor, Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams, had arranged for Blakelock to be properly groomed and dressed in the Brooks Brothers attire she provided for him. She arranged for him to be picked up and transported to the event to ensure his timely arrival. Blakelock played his part admirably. He was reported to be appropriately charming and brilliant from the beginning to the end of the evening, when Adams promptly returned him to the Middletown Hospital for the Insane where he had resided for the past fifteen years of his life for treatment of dementia praecox (schizophrenia).
While Blakelock was in and out of mental hospitals for the remainder of his life, his artwork, as well as countless copies and forgeries of his work, continued to be sought after by collectors.
Notwithstanding Blakelock’s growing fame, neither the artist, his estranged wife, nor any of his nine children received any proceeds from the sale of his artwork. Blakelock and his family lived out their lives in obscurity and in extreme poverty.
The romantic saga of Blakelock’s life both adds and distracts from an appreciation of his art. Blakelock implored people to judge his images on their own merit, but it is often impossible to appraise the consequences of either or both those factors on an artist’s life and work. Genius? Madman? Perhaps, the answer does not matter. Blakelock was a ‘painter’s painter. The emotional impact and the power of the art Blakelock created are undeniable–unforgettable.
Ralph Albert Blakelock: The Great Mad Genius Returns was on view at Questroyal Fine Art, LLC from November 11 through December 10, 2016.