Ralph Albert Blakelock


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Painter. Remembered especially for evocative, richly painted landscapes, he also painted smaller numbers of figural studies and still lifes. In characteristic, often moonlit images, lambent skies set off darkly silhouetted trees, producing meditative, even otherworldly effects. Often unobtrusively inhabiting the shadows, American Indians rendered without ethnographic specificity imply harmonious coexistence with nature. With its origins in the nature-worshipping Hudson River School and the painterly intimacy of Barbizon work, Blakelock's personal style responded as well to contemporary international currents, most notably the psychological subjectivity of symbolism and the general postimpressionist indifference to representational accuracy. In its subdued color harmonies and quietist mood, his work relates also to tonalism. Like his exact contemporary, the more imaginative and forceful Albert Ryder, he presents visions of a natural order that subsumes and, in so doing, exalts its human component. Like Ryder, too, he skirted standard technical methods, with the result that many of his paintings have darkened or otherwise deteriorated. Born in New York, in 1866 he left the city's Free Academy (now City College of New York) before graduating. Almost entirely self-taught as a painter, in his early work he emulated the prevailing Hudson River School. In 1869 he departed for the American West, where he sketched the landscape and, occasionally, its native inhabitants. Before he returned home in 1871 he traveled from California through Mexico and Panama to Jamaica. From these experiences, he generalized his introspective and romantic treatment of the wilderness landscape, usually a forest enclosure. Despite his obsessive recapitulation of a single theme, the most completely and carefully realized examples convey a compelling poetry symbolic of larger truths. On occasion he reached beyond his normal range of subjects to achieve singular results, as in the hypnotically radiant marine view, The Sun, Serene, Sinks into the Slumberous Sea (Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts, 1880s). Emptied of incident save drifting clouds, the image centers on a diffused glow just above the horizon of a calm sea, echoing earlier luminism no less than the reduced aesthetic associated with James Abbott McNeill Whistler's work. Blakelock's solitary style, puzzling to contemporaries, and his general indifference to marketing his work resulted in chronic poverty for the artist and his family. The psychological stresses of failure contributed in 1891 to the first evidence of the schizophrenia that eventually destroyed him. Hospitalized that year, from 1899 he remained institutionalized almost continuously, while trying intermittently and ineffectually to paint, until his death in the Adirondacks, near Elizabethtown. He won little recognition until his final years. When it was too late for him to benefit, his work snowballed in popularity. In a final irony, his painting shares also with Ryder's the distinction of prompting numerous forgeries to appear on the market. Moreover, his signature was later fraudulently added to some of the landscapes and seascapes painted by his daughter Marian Blakelock (1880–1930?). In 1915 she, too, was hospitalized for mental illness.

Subjects: Art.

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