Monday, July 16, 2012


The Unknown Blakelock, which was exhibited at the National Academy Museum. 1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, New York City, October 2, 2008 to January 4, offered new perspectives on the prescient work of Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847-1919), specifically addressing the modernity of his accomplishments as reflected in this exhibition’s paintings. Organized by the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska, this display consists of 41 one works on loan from 25 major American museums and private collections from across the country offering an outstanding view of the breadth of Blakelock’s achievement as one America’s greatest landscape painters.

Blakelock’s art has had a profound influence on modern and contemporary American painters. His ability as an artist to step outside habit; to cross the line of established convention; to discover a new awareness of space, color, and form is at the heart of the The Unknown Blakelock. While including some of the most important moonlight and encampment scenes with which he is closely associated, this show reveals the full scope and variety of his work: western landscapes, Native American subjects, Jamaican landscapes, shanty scenes, seascapes, still lifes, and imaginary/fantasy compositions are represented in this major showing.

Living in New York and with a large family to support, Blakelock painted visionary scenes that did not find a ready market until after 1900, following his internment in a mental institution. His endless financial woes played a role in a series of mental collapses, and in 1899 he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and institutionalized for much of the last 20 years of his life. It was this struggle with mental illness that gained him the epithet of “mad genius.” The Unknown Blakelock dispels this narrow characterization of Blakelock by demonstrating the aesthetic value of the full range of his work.

Ralph Albert Blakelock was born in October 1847 in New York City where he developed an early interest in landscape painting. As a young man Blakelock traveled throughout the American West, and spent considerable time visiting Native-American tribal lands. He also made visits to Mexico and parts of Central America and the Caribbean. His journeys resulted in a lifelong fascination with the dramatic and Romantic aspects of nature. Essentially self-taught as an artist, Blakelock initially worked in a style akin to such Hudson River School painters as Willam Louis Sonntag, Jr., before developing his own darker, more roughly textured painting style during the course of his western travels, when he began to create landscapes that included elements or aspects of Native-American life. In time he developed a more subjective and intimate style, which has much in common with the work of the French Barbizon School and especially the landscapes of Theodore Rousseau and Adolphe Joseph Thomas Monticelli.

Ralph Albert Blakelock, Moonlight 1886-1895. Oil on canvas, 28-1/8 x 37-1/8 inches. The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, William A. Clark Collection

Blakelock’s well known Moonlight,, 1886-1895 on loan from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, depicts one of the artist’s favorite themes and reflects the artist’s characteristic ability to express moods of haunting reverie, which derive purely from his imagination.

This dazzling and visionary landscape also reveals his masterful and meticulous method of building, glazing and polishing surfaces. Moonlight, was sold at auction in 1913 for $13,900, which was then the highest sum paid for a work by a living American artist.

Lesser known than his Indian encampments and moonlight pictures are Blakelock’s shanty scenes, Caribbean landscapes and still lifes. The shanty paintings primarily depict the makeshift houses that were constructed on the rough and undeveloped terrain of upper Manhattan, which would be turned into Central Park.

The shanty paintings are extraordinary for their treatment of this subject, as well as for their rich color and texture, as evidenced in Shanty in Harlem, from a private collection in California, with its setting of rocky outcrop and brilliant blue sky. The Caribbean landscapes are few in number, but rank among the most evocative of Blakelock’s artworks.

In St. Gabriel’s Grotto,, loaned from The Parthenon in Nashville, TN, the canvas suggests the sumptuous lure of the island, displaying luxuriant foliage and rock formations of nondescriptive color, with human figures subordinated to the background.

Blakelock’s still lifes, few in number and largely unknown, are totally unconventional. In Carnations and Zinnias,, borrowed from a private collection in Pittsburgh, he provides only a faint indication of the tabletop and pushes the flowers close to the picture plane, so that the viewer experiences the “feel” of the flowers – it is as if their “inner life” pushes toward us. The exhibition also featured the eerie and mesmerizing Japanese Lantern and Moths,, from a private collection in Colorado, with its murky atmosphere and glowing treatment of light.

The Unknown Blakelockalso included works that derive from mythology, and ones that verge on expressionism.

Ralph Albert Blakelock, Pegasus, before 1913. Oil on board, 9 x 13 inches. Denver Art Museum, The Edward and Tullah Hanley Memorial, Gift to the People of Denver and the Area

Pegasus, from the Denver Art Museum, is an image completely free of any prescriptions of academic method. The indistinct shape of the horse and rider is set against an indeterminate background painted in a welter of strokes. In Ecstasy, from the Muskegon Museum of Arts in Michigan, the subject is a landscape, but the pigment seems to create or form its own structure -- a construct unprecedented in its time.

Blakelock was one of the greatest American visionaries of the nineteenth century and his haunting paintings were critically praised only during the last 20 years of his life. In 1903, the New York Evening Post observed “we are hearing much about Blakelock and his art. Every exhibition of sale has one or more examples of his work, and no collection, however small, is thought to be complete without a canvas or two by him.” The art of Ralph Albert Blakelock has been overshadowed by the circumstances of his personal history. This exhibition serves to provide the full scope of his achievement as one of America’s greatest and most innovative landscape painters.

The exhibition was conceived by Norman Geske, Blakelock specialist and Director Emeritus of the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and organized by the Sheldon curator Daniel A. Siedell. At the National Academy, Bruce Weber, Senior Curator of Nineteenth-Century Art provides oversight for the exhibition.

A catalogue accompanied the exhibition, with an introduction by Norman Geske that examines the full scope of Blakelock’s accomplishment, drawing on both his biography and works in the exhibition, to clarify Blakelock’s place in the history of American painting. An essay by Mark Mitchell, former Associate Curator of The National Academy Museum, explored Blakelock’s use of vibrant, saturated hues in relation to contemporary artistic movements. Finally, Daniel Siedell contributed an essay on Blakelock and contemporary painting.