OIL PAINTS AND ILLUSIONS: THE RALPH ALBERT BLAKELOCK STORY

Moonlight (1885-1889) via Wikimedia Commons and the Brooklyn Museum

Ralph Albert Blakelock often shows up in textbooks and survey exhibitions next to his better-known contemporaries like George Inness or Albert Pinkham Ryder, all late nineteenth-century American painters known for their simple, hazy, romanticist landscapes. Although not entirely forgotten, the self-taught Blakelock is usually given short shrift. Perhaps it’s because his life story, which begins in downtown Manhattan and ends in an asylum in Middletown, New York, is riddled with holes and vagaries.

But the details that have been uncovered—about the big top circus, Upper East Side shantytowns, Herman Melville, vaudeville, a sojourn out west, a tragic mental breakdown—are perplexing and intriguing, indeed the stuff of legend. Blakelock was a manic experimenter, an autodidact, a savant, an individualist, a rebel, a failure, a weirdo: an outsider in the American tradition and a paradigmatic, as well as first-rate, Manhattan artist.

The twelfth Ralph but first Ralph Albert in his family, Blakelock was born on Christopher Street in what’s now the West Village, Manhattan in 1847, against the backdrop of an impending immigration boom (due to Ireland’s famine and Germany’s revolution, mainly) as well as an industrial one that would transform Walt Whitman’s desolate, early-1840s Manhattan into a world financial capital by the following decade. Blakelock taught himself to paint and play the piano, and was highly skilled in both areas by the time he was a teenager.

Influenced by the Hudson River School painters of the mid-nineteenth century as well as those from France’s Barbizon School, the young Blakelock developed a subtle style marked by quick brush strokes and fairly precise objectivity. He painted landscapes, farms, and notably, the shantytowns of uptown Manhattan (see below: a warm, bare depiction of Fifth Avenue in the upper Eighties, painted in 1868 when the Upper East Side was populated by self-built houses housing Manhattan’s working class). Blakelock’s painting would take a turn, though, once he left New York City for the American west, which he did, alone, in his early twenties.

Fifth Avenue and 89th Street (1868) via Ephemeral New York

Though not much is known about Blakelock’s experiences out west—not the exact places he visited, nor the exact dates he was there—many of his drawings and paintings from the period remain. During this time, Blakelock began to shift his painting style in terms of technique, color, and content. Where his early work had the more pronounced outlines of, for instance, Winslow Homer, with a bit of the elegant romanticism of Theodore Rousseau, Blakelock’s western and post-western output is defined by its unusual light sources, warmer colors, and non-objective mind’s eye compositions, as well as by its primary subjects: western landscapes, often featuring Native Americans and their encampments. The visionary Blakelock was attracted to the abstruse spirituality he saw emanating from the western desert.

Upon his return to New York, Blakelock married Cora Bailey of Barnum & Bailey fame. The couple would go on to have nine children, including another Ralph: Ralph Melville Blakelock, presumably named for the eminent New York City writer, Herman, whose popular travelogue novels Typee and Omoo came out around the time of Ralph Albert’s birth, and whose overlooked epic poem Clarel (the longest poem in American literature) arrived just before the birth of Ralph Melville. The family lived near the corners of 24th Street and 9th Avenue and 30th Street and 8th Avenue—and, despite Cora’s family wealth, fell into poverty due to Ralph Albert’s poor business skills and unwillingness to market himself. Unlike many of his contemporaries, the self-reliant Blakelock refused to be represented by a dealer, choosing instead to sell his own paintings (and frequently failing).

The Chase (1879) via the Nebraska Blakelock Inventory

While in New York City—and then East and West Orange, New Jersey, where the family ultimately moved—Blakelock, ever restless with his craft, changed his painting approach yet again, pushing the subjective, mystical landscape style he had developed out west to its breaking point, de-focusing the lens of his mind’s eye. His mid-to-late paintings have limited and disorienting color palettes as well as limited detail, favoring a flat-but-kinetic lyricism that reduces the subjects to buzzing shapes. The landscape canvases, such as Moonlight (at the top of this page), tend to feature moonlit scenes, dead trees, and narrow bodies of water.

The visionary quality of Blakelock’s paintings betrays the fact that, from an early age, Blakelock began having actual visions. Around 1891, shortly after converting to the mystic religion of Swedenborgianism, Blakelock started having frequent psychotic episodes—and after numerous short-term stays in asylums, Blakelock checked in for a more-or-less permanent stay in 1899 at the age of fifty-one, suffering from dementia praecox (what’s now called schizophrenia).

In the final two to three decades of his life, though, Blakelock’s work began to sell comparably well. The vaudeville performer Lew Bloom—famous for creating the so-called “tramp” character—bought dozens of Blakelock’s paintings in the early 1890s, and the painter’s star continued to rise into the progressive era. Legend has it that President Woodrow Wilson was invited to Blakelock’s 1919 funeral and would’ve attended had he had more advanced notice.

After his death, Blakelock fell into relative obscurity. In 1947, Lloyd Goodrich organized Blakelock’s first posthumous solo show, shown at City College, and then later that year the Whitney presented a Blakelock show as well. Since then, he’s had occasional featured exhibitions in New York City and has earned praise, albeit again in passing, from important New York art figures like Donald Judd, Roberta Smith, and Paul Auster, the latter of whom mentions Blakelock in his 1989 novel Moon Palace. In 1996, Abraham Davidson wrote what remains the only definitive book on Blakelock: Ralph Albert Blakelock, which was the fundamental source for this article’s information. But unlike Inness and Ryder, Blakelock, who in many ways prefigured the successive generations of iconoclastic downtown Manhattan artists, is still overlooked and misunderstood: blurry and incomprehensible, like the subjects of his later paintings.

Landscape (date unknown) via the University of Warwick

Written by Joe Bucciero