On February 22, 1916, Ralph Albert Blakelock's haunting landscape, Brook by Moonlight, was sold at auction for $20,000, a record price for a painting by a living American artist. The sale made him famous, newspapers called him America's greatest artist, and thousands flocked to exhibits of his work. Yet at the time of his triumph Blakelock had spent 15 years confined in a psychiatric hospital in upstate New York and his wife and children were living in poverty. Released from the asylum by a young philanthropist, Blakelock was about to become the victim of one of the most heartless con games of the century.
This remarkable biography chronicles the life, times and madness of one of America’s most celebrated and exploited painters whose brooding, hallucinogenic landscapes anticipated Abstract Expressionism by more than half a century. Like the best biographies, The Unknown Night brings to life a vanished world, as well. In this case, it’s late 19th and early 20th century New York-a city of artists’ studios and spiritualists’ salons, shantytowns and millionaires’ mansions.
Blakelock was a mystic who as a young man wandered among the Indians out West, and on his return frequented the spiritualist circles in New York City. Though he was regarded as a loner, he worked among the great painters of his time, artists like William Merritt Chase and George Inness. Blakelock initially painted in the Romantic style of the Hudson River School, but by the 1880s, his brooding, hallucinogenic landscapes were considered among the most controversial, radical paintings of the era. In the 1890s he fell on hard times and sometimes played the piano on the vaudeville circuit to earn extra cash. He suffered his first mental break down in 1891. After a period of remission he became violent and was institutionalized in 1899 just as his reputation was beginning to soar. Interest in his work peaked in 1916 when a wave of Blakelock hysteria swept America. Crowds lined up to see Blakelock exhibitions in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Wealthy collectors bid record prices for his haunting paintings. Blakelock was released from the asylum and seemed destined for a glorious and comfortable end. Instead, fed upon by opportunistic dealers and forgers, Blakelock became entangled in a web of deceit spun by the very woman who was supposed to be his savior.
Vincent begins his story in the spring of 1916 when Blakelock's canvas, The Brook by Moonlight, was auctioned at the Plaza Hotel in New York for $20,000 - a record price at that time for the work of a living American painter. It was Blakelock's second record in three years. Newspaper reporters converged on the painter and art pundits tripped over each other in doling out praise for his mysterious nocturnal landscapes. "Few American artists deserve a higher niche in the Temple of Fame," drooled the pioneering art dealer, William Macbeth. Some were calling Blakelock the greatest American landscape painter ever.
At the time, Blakelock was penniless, a resident of an asylum in Middletown, New York. His wife, Cora Bailey Blakelock was living in poverty with their youngest children in a small house in the Catskills. Blakelock may well have remained locked away if it had not been for the efforts of Mrs. Van Rensselaer Adams, a 32-year-old vamp with a shady past. Adams passed herself off as a philanthropist, "rescued" Blakelock from the asylum, and brought him to New York City to generate public sympathy for the artist and his family. She had arranged a large show of his paintings at the Reinhardt Gallery on Fifth Avenue. It was a huge success attracting all the major critics and large crowds throughout its run over seven months. A committee of venerable art personages was formed to collect the proceeds from Blakelock’s work to be passed on to his wife and children. Blakelock, all dressed up for the Gallery opening, cut a dashing figure. His wife, though, was nowhere to be seen. Adams had, as she would do again at crucial junctures, cut her out. The resulting newspaper feeding frenzy - an early instance of celebrity journalism and scandal mongering -- climaxed several months later with banner headlines about a hazy plot to assassinate the painter.
In order to better accommodate Romantic accounts, Blakelock's early career has long been misconstrued as a fruitless endeavor. His experimental work, many claimed, met only with scorn, derision and neglect. How Blakelock came to be considered one of the top three painters in the country by 1900 was never explained. In fact, the author discovered that Blakelock had attracted favorable attention in the press as early as 1879. While it was true that Blakelock and Albert Pinkham Ryder, with whom he was constantly associated, were subjected to ridicule by some critics, the controversy that surrounded them, also enshrined them. Many progressive critics championed Blakelock and Ryder's expressive, quasi-abstract landscapes, which were redefininnnnnng the boundaries of American art. By 1886, Blakelock's moonlight paintings were attracting rave reviews.
Blakelock was an eccentric, often subject to violent mood swings and later extended bouts of paranoia. He was eventually diagnosed with dementia praecox - now called schizophrenia. The line between manic depression, bipolar disorders and various subtypes of schizophrenia, however, is blurry and lately has become the subject of debate. Most likely, Blakelock was suffering from what is called late-onset schizophrenia. He was 43 when he had his first psychotic episode, slashing his paintings, burning large amounts of money and threatening his family. He soon recovered and went back to his studio painting many of his most significant and mysterious paintings. Recently found letters indicate that he was lucid until the death of his father in 1897. Thereafter, his mental state disintegrated. The family was desperately poor. Blakelock, his long hair beaded like an Indian, a dagger in his waistband, took to the streets to sell his paintings. He became increasingly deluded, believing his paintings were worth millions and that he was related to royalty. It was two years later that Blakelock was once again sent away, this time remaining in an asylum until 1916.
Blakelock has been described as a Romantic, a visionary, an outsider and an eccentric Hudson River School artist. His work, which contains both classic and modern elements, defies definition. Yet he is universally acknowledged to be one of the most original, innovative American artists of the nineteenth century - way ahead of his time. Reviewing a Blakelock exhibition in 1942, the influential critic Edward Alden Jewell called Blakelock "one of the greatest artists America has produced." Five years later, on the occasion of Blakelock's retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Robert Coates, critic for the New Yorker, described Blakelock as one of the "strongest individualists" in American art putting him on a level with Homer, Eakins and Ryder. This was at a time when Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline were looking to Blakelock and Ryder for inspiration. Today Blakelock's paintings continue to hang in virtually every major American museum. In May of 2000, Blakelock's early masterpiece, Indian Encampment on The Snake River eclipsed every other American painter in a Sotheby's auction, fetching $3.5 million. Blakelock, it appears, refuses to be forgotten.