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The Unknown Night: The Madness and Genius of R.A. Blakelock, An American Painter
by Glyn Vincent
(Grove Press)

Blakelock about the time of his travels out west, 1869-72

R.A. Blakelock
Brook by Moonlight

R.A. Blakelock
The Chase
ca. 1879
The American van Gogh
by Duncan Hannah

Glyn Vincent, The Unknown Night: The Genius and Madness of R.A. Blakelock, an American Painter, 362 pp., Grove Press, New York, 2003.
The Artist is nothing, but his art is everything.
-- R.A. Blakelock, 1913

The current revival of interest in the visionary paintings of Ralph Blakelock (1847-1919) began in 1987 with a handsome show and catalogue at the Salander-O'Reilly Gallery. The dealers deftly reframed Blakelock in sleek oak Mondrian-style frames, and hung him in context with Corot, Constable and some of the Barbizon painters. These eccentric works from the 1880s and '90s looked surprisingly modern and relevant.

The big retrospective of Albert Pinkham Ryder (Blakelock's exact contemporary) at the Brooklyn Museum happened shortly thereafter, and suddenly small, dark intimate landscapes were in. Contemporary artists such as Joan Nelson, Chris Pfister, Stephen Hannock and Jeff Joyce seemed to be drinking from the Ryder-Blakelock well.

Five Blakelock oils emerged from Warhol's collection in the famous Sotheby's sale in 1990. Blakelock's market was still wobbly, thanks in part to the large number of fakes that had been done during his lifetime. There was no reference book, only a couple out-of-print catalogues, plus a cameo appearance in novelist Paul Austers' hip Moon Palace (in which the author interrupts his narrative to tell the sad saga of R.A.B.). In 1996 Pennsylvania State University put out an academic study, but now comes the biography, suitable for scholars and laymen alike.

The unwieldy title notwithstanding, The Unknown Night is a good read, and captures Blakelock's unique achievements in the context of his time. This is a tale that begins before the Civil War in provincial Greenwich Village and ends in madness just after World War I. It contains a wealth of information not previously available, and Vincent organizes his material well.

It's a very New York City story. Blakelock was born on Christopher Street in 1847, and moved to Patchin Place when he was five. He sang in the choir of a church that most recently did duty as the sinister nightclub Limelight. He went to City College on 23rd and Lexington during the Civil War, studying Longfellow (Song of Hiawatha) and Emerson, and adopted Romantic views on nature.

Emerson wrote, "Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space -- all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God." Whew, pretty psychedelic stuff. Blakelock also embraced Swedenborgian mysticism, as did his elder colleague George Innes, who believed there was a spiritual reality beneath the physical reality, all things being animated by a psychic force.

Instead of going to Europe to study in the academies, in 1869 Blakelock took off on what was the first of four trips to the American West. Whereas wealthy artists such as Church and Bierstadt traveled into arcadia on government-protected tours, Blakelock did it alone, riding in horseback, carrying his supplies in a homemade knapsack, sleeping under the stars.

The Indian treaties had been signed a year before, but these lands were still dangerous. He revered the Indians he met, and they in turn must've been charmed by this small (5 foot 5, 102 pounds) sensitive New Yorker dressed in black, sketching their campsites from a distance. He was a breed apart from the mangy prospectors, Indian fighters and soldiers who drifted around the Wild West. He was actively saturating himself with the poetry of the wilderness.

Meanwhile, back in Greenwich Village, Blakelock got a studio on Broadway and 9th Street, working in proximity to William Merritt Chase and Winslow Homer. He started a growing family, which he moved to New Jersey, commuting everyday by ferryboat to Manhattan to work the artist's trade. He painted the shanty-towns of 57th Street, tried his hand at a couple of "true murder" paintings, and finally began to hit his stride in the 1880s, finding the moody twilight style now known as "Tonalism," an American offshoot of the Barbizon school.

Blakelock showed yearly at the National Academy of Design, but was never elected a member. He was never asked to join the Century Association where the Hudson River School painters reigned. He had no dealer. He began pushing the landscape into a transcendent state of consciousness, away from pastoral prettiness. He told a critic he wanted the colors in his painting "to flow upon the senses like a melody."

The struggle to support his increasingly large family became more difficult. He was forced to dash off pictures and then hit the streets to sell them for quick money. The emotional wear began to show in his 40s, when he began to manifest persecution fears, paranoid delusions and erratic behavior. He would dress as an Indian, with beaded hair and dagger, sell a picture for a fraction of its worth, then tear up the money. Once he destroyed a number of paintings, fearful that a secret organization would discover them in his possession. In 1891 he was hospitalized for schizophrenia.

Upon his release he continued his modernist experiments, equal parts Poe and Whitman. He developed his trademark moonlight pictures in the midst of his chaotic life. He was constantly moving and scrambling for money. With the birth of his eighth child, and the death of his father, his mental health deteriorated more. He began calling himself Julius Caesar, or the Duke of York or ranting about the millions of dollars his paintings brought and even began painting money itself, and trying to use it as legal tender (million dollar bills).

Finally, after threatening to kill his family (while naked) he was sent away for good. It was 1899 and he was 53.

The story spread about "the American van Gogh," and suddenly Blakelock was a hot property. He had his first show at the Lotos Club in 1900, and Knoedler, Macbeth and Vose galleries began selling whatever Blakelocks they could get a hold of. In 1913, his Moonlight set a record for an American painting at auction ($13,900). In 1916, the Toledo Museum bought Brook by Moonlight for $20,000.

Blakelock's family got none of this, and the artist himself languished in Middletown Hospital, working on small bits of cigar boxes, cardboard or wallpaper, painting mushy pastel landscapes that in no way matched his former harmonic precision. He signed them A-1 for Albert the First. He said he was a secret agent working for the government; he was given the drug belladonna for his mania and his nudist tendencies.

He would ask for Lady Blakelock. Instead a con artist named Mrs. Adams swooped in to profit off his tragic circumstances, and set up a fund for him and his family, though the benefits flowed to her, as one might expect. Towards the end of his life, she got him out for the day to visit Manhattan, which had changed drastically since his incarceration. The press followed his delighted journey, riding under the Hudson River in a train, his first ride in a car, his first experience with skyscrapers. He loved the elevator in the Woolworth Building, riding up and down in his too-big suit, looking like Charlie Chaplin. She took him to an exhibition of his paintings, where he picked out the fakes. He was more interested in his beloved Barbizon predecessors, and spoke knowledgeably about Diaz, Rousseau and Monticelli.

Sadly, in the end he realized he was being duped by a cagey profiteer and that he was being kept from visits from his family by the evil Mrs. Adams. She got him to camp in the Adirondacks in the summer of 1919, where he died. The law never caught up with Adams, but ironically she succumbed to schizophrenia herself and collapsed in front of Grand Central Station in 1941, ranting about Blakelock.

Vincent's book is marred only by its limited number of color reproductions of Blakelock's works. But one hopes that this biography will spur some publisher to organize a sumptuous coffee table book. Blakelock deserves to be given the full treatment. As Vincent writes, "Blakelock, understandably, never could completely turn his back on his own century and create, entirely on his own, a new art form. Rather, he was like a prophet or a shaman, mumbling descriptions few could understand, while pointing up ahead toward a new land yet to be discovered."

DUNCAN HANNAH is a painter who lives in New York.