Friday, September 3, 2010

Blakelock: The American Night

If people cared as much about painting as they do about literature, the name Ralph Albert Blakelock would be as well-known and as celebrated as that of Edgar Allen Poe.

Blakelock was three years old when Poe died in the autumn of 1849 after being found delirious and raving on the streets of Baltimore dressed in someone else's clothes. Both were born to lower-middle class families in northeastern cities (Poe in Boston, Blakelock in New York). Both are Romantics in the sense we've been exploring. Both loved the haunted American night: effects of moonlight in tree branches and clouds and on the still surfaces of deserted deeply wooded pools. Both were mentally imbalanced (Blakelock was actually hospitalized and in and out of mental institutions all his life. As a result, someone's recently floated "the American van Gogh" to characterize him). Both were American visionaries, passionately pursuing in solitude a formal course of experimental expression.

Blakelock has finally been attracting a long-overdue cult following, in part because of The Unknown Blakelock, an excellent exhibition the year before last of some of his most original and defining paintings. I captured most of the images in this post while visiting the exhibition when it came to the National Academy of Art in New York City.

One of Blakelock's Moonlight paintings

Blakelock was doing something no one else was doing in visual art. His moody abstract landscapes and thick, gestural application of the paint, make him a precursor to mid 20th-century abstract expressionism (Franz Kline even had a Blakelock in his personal collection).

As you may be able to see in the close-up above, Blakelock had a wild way with his paint. He often painted around his forms; he would paint the whole thing completely dark (i.e. black) and then model his trees and other forms by filling in the negative space around them with the lighter colors (the exact opposite of what most painters do).

Just think about the disparity between scholarship on 19th century American writers, like Hawthorne, Whitman, Dickinson, Wharton, or Poe and 19th century American painters, like Inness or Blakelock. How many 19th century American artists are common knowledge? Very few, I think. It's not the public's fault; I think it's the result of art historians' fascination with European art and American modernism. Our whole heritage of Romantic 19th century American painting has been hijacked and ignored.

R. A. Blakelock, Moonlight Sonata, 1892

(Here you can really see how he'd paint the whole
canvas black first and then create the tree and water
forms by applying lighter paint on top of the dark.)

I'm not saying Blakelock is like Poe, just that between his amazing, emotive work and the "mad genius" appeal of his sensational life, he would have followers. Everyone knows Poe, and the books of and about his life and work, his letters, the testimonies of his friends and acquaintances and their letters, etc. etc. could probably fill every inch of wall space in my family's not-so-palatial apartment. It's been going for decades. But ... Blakelock? No one's even sure how many paintings he made. The baseline for art historical scholarship - the artist's catalogue raissone - the documentation of the body of work - has yet to be done (they finally got around to issuing Inness's A YEAR AND A HALF AGO!). There's one biography of Blakelock and one survey of his life and known work, both finally appearing in the last three years or so. He's got no selected letters or collected notebooks, sketchbooks, or essays, no postage stamp with his picture on it, no "Blakelock House Museum," no "Blakelock Society" to organize events in his honor or visits to his grave.

He doesn't even have basic name recognition!

And that's just all the more reason to re-visit him here in posts to come.


  1. I so agree Chris. I went in search of information about him six months ago or so and was amazed at how little I found. Its lovely to see these works of his.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Deborah. I've been amassing a trove of Blakelock images and information, and your comment has inspired me to be sure to share it all in a future post.