The American painter Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847-1919) was one of the most original romantic artists of late-19th-century America.
Ralph Blakelock was born on Oct. 15, 1847, in New York City. After a year and a half of college he dropped out to take up painting. Entirely self-taught, by the age of 20 he was painting competent landscapes and exhibiting in the National Academy of Design. In his early 20s he journeyed to the Far West, wandering far from civilization and spending some time among the Indians; this experience resulted in a lifelong fascination with the forest and its Indian inhabitants.
Blakelock's early landscapes were relatively literal and tight, in the style of the Hudson River school of painters, though without their grandiosity. As he matured, he developed a more intimate, subjective style. His favorite theme was the deep forest with its wildness and solitude; the hours were sunset, twilight, or night—seldom full daylight. With the years he concentrated more and more on moonlight scenes; the characteristic Blakelock nocturne is a peaceful moonlit scene, trees silhouetted against the sky, the moon seen through a tracery of foliage, veils of atmosphere creating patterns of receding planes.
Blakelock's style was akin to the French Barbizon painters Narcisse Diaz and Théodore Rousseau. His pronounced decorative quality also suggested Japanese art. But he was not a follower of any school; his was a highly personal art, drawing its content from the American scene. With his contemporary the romantic artist Albert P. Ryder, Blakelock was one of the most individual painters of his period in America.
In 1877 Blakelock married Cora Rebecca Bailey; they had nine children. In money matters Blakelock was completely unworldly. He had few opportunities to exhibit his pictures and no wide reputation; to support his family, he sold his paintings for very low prices, often for $25 or less, seldom for more than $100. In the 1890s he began to show symptoms of mental breakdown; in 1899 he became mentally ill and spent the rest of his life in psychiatric hospitals. His schizophrenic delusion was that he was immensely wealthy—perhaps a compensation for his long struggle to support his family. He continued to paint until his death on Aug. 9, 1919; however, his work was of lesser quality.
Almost as soon as Blakelock went into the first psychiatric hospital, his work began to receive recognition. Within a few years paintings he had sold so cheaply were resold for several thousand dollars, benefiting neither Blakelock nor his family. By 1903 his work was being forged, so that eventually there were many more fakes than genuine works. Such was the final ironical touch to one of the most tragic stories in American art.
Further Reading on Ralph Albert Blakelock
The only book on Blakelock is Elliott Daingerfield, Ralph Albert Blakelock (1914). The most complete account of his life and art, based on previously unpublished sources, is Lloyd Goodrich's catalog of the Blakelock Centenary Exhibition (1947) of the Whitney Museum of American Art.