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Monday, December 26, 2016

Ralph Albert Blakelock

Fire in the Sky, Ralph Blakelock
As a general rule, I'm not easily impressed by landscape painters. I think the reason being that I've done more than my share over the years and for the most part, I find them well beneath my capability as an artist. One might almost say they consist of a few standard brushstrokes and color combinations (depending upon the season and time of day) which amount to hardly more than camouflaging the canvas. Unless there's some content element involved (which often elevates them to some other type of painting), they are little more than depictions of nature in a background mode. For this very reason, the landscapes of the late 19th-century American landscape painter, Ralph Blakelock, seldom impress me. All to often they seem to be little more than a brightly lit sky, possibly reflected in water, framed by a mesh of silhouetted trees and undergrowth. Fire in the Sky (above) is a near-perfect example. His Moonlight, Indian Encampment (below), from 1889, is another, though less garishly rendered, sample of what I mean.
Moonlight, Indian Encampment, 1889, Ralph Blakelock
At a time when nearly every American artist of any consequence was expected to study in Europe, Ralph Blakelock did not. In fact he didn't study anywhere in particular. He was primarily self-taught. Instead of heading across the sea, Blakelock headed west. Already an accomplished landscape painter, having exhibited in the National Academy of Design, Blakelock set off in 1869 for the West, visiting Utah, Nevada, California, Wyoming, and Colorado. Long after he returned to New York, he continued to draw upon sketches and memories of this adventure for most of his subject matter. Blakelock's work is characterized by a moody, mysterious appearance, often depicting night scenes, such as his Moonlight, Indian Encampment (above).
An artist defeated by his own style.
Born in 1849, the son of a New York physician, his romantic landscapes, often featuring a silhouetted foreground of various bitumen pigments (coal tar), which darkens with age. His work often exhibited heavy impasto painting that was at the same time delicate and elegant against the strongly contrasting background of moonlight and water, reminiscent of the work of the English pre-impressionist, J.M.W. Turner. Blakelock had a large family to support, but his work did not find a ready market in the East, which contributed to a series of endless financial woes that eventually led to a mental breakdown. He was institutionalized in 1891.

Shanties in Harlem, 1874, Ralph Blakelock
Yet, like van Gogh in France, at about the same time, in fact, he could not stop painting. And even though supplies were scarce, his output did not diminish. Often reduced to painting on cardboard, fragments of window shades, or wallpaper, Blakelock continued to create his beloved landscapes. Strangely enough, after a time, his work began to attract critical attention and purchases, though they were largely too little, too late. With this came an increase in prices and ironically, a virtual flood of forgeries (his work is quite simple and easily forged). It's been documented that there are now more forgeries of his work than originals. Ralph Blakelock was released from the mental institution in 1916. He died a year later.
Pawpack Falls (left) and The Old Mill (right)
Rockaway Beach, Long Island, New York, 1870,
Ralph Albert Blakelock--his only beach scene.

Snow Scene, Ralph Blakelock--his only snow scene.


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