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An Incredibly Brave and Tragic Figure - Blakelock, a Great American Painter

I recently started working on painting studies based upon yet another great American painter from the turn of the century named Ralph Albert Blakelock.

Blakelock was born in New York City, on October 15, 1847. His father was a carpenter, who would later serve as a police officer before becoming a homeopathic doctor. His well networked uncle James had friends and acquaintances like James Renwick Brevoort and Frederic Church. "Uncle Jim" introduced him from a young age to music and painting. Initially intending to follow in his father’s medical footsteps, Blakelock enrolled in the Free Academy of the City of New York (later City College) in 1864. He dropped out to begin painting full time.

This talented and brave American artist was self-taught. However, he first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1867, and two years later set out on his inaugural Western trip. This journey proved to be crucial to his artistic vision and an influence on his work for the rest of his life.

While cross-country trips were becoming some-what common among nineteenth-century artists, most famously Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, they were typically embarked on as part of government sponsored expeditions. Blakelock, however, traveled alone. By railroad and stagecoach he made his way through the territories of Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and California.

While the expansiveness and wonder of the landscape impressed him, as it did other artists, it was the time spent with various American Indian tribes that had a particular effect. From Fort Pierre in present-day South Dakota, he traveled into the wilderness alone on horseback and spent time with tribes of the Great Sioux Nation. It has been said that his early Western landscapes and primeval forests foreshadowed the style he would later develop, in which mood superseded the importance of geographical detail.

Later in life stress and anxiety got the better of him and he had multiple bouts of serious mental health issues. He spent time at the Lambert estate in Hawley, Pennsylvania to convalesce. He also was admitted to institutions like Long Island State Hospital at Flatbush, Flatbush Insane Asylum and Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital.

Blakelock was treated for dementia praecox, equivalent to the modern diagnosis of schizophrenia; he would remain there hospitalized almost continuously until his death. Initially confined to a secluded ward and treated with hot baths that were meant to have a calming effect, he was soon placed in an open ward where he had the freedom to move about the grounds and even the nearby village. He continued to find inspiration in his surroundings and sketched and painted with whatever meager materials were available to him; many works from this period are on scrap pieces of wood, board, and cigar box lids.

Ironically, the moment of his greatest triumph came while he was confined to Middletown. In 1916, Brook by Moon-light sold at auction from the Catholina Lambert collection for $20,000, setting the record for the largest amount ever paid at auction for a living American artist. Later that year he was finally elected to full membership at the National Academy of Design.

Tragically, there were reports that at times he would discuss his prominence in the art community with hospital administration and staff and they would attribute his stories to his mental health issues.

You can view my attempts to recreate the unique beauty found in Blakelock’s paintings among several other great painters such as George Inness, Cullen Yates, and Charles Warren Eaton within a painting series I’ve embarked upon called “Study the Greats.”

Click on any of the images of my painting studies in this post and you will be brought to YouTube or Instagram videos featuring narrated demonstrations of the process followed to recreate the Blakelock oringals.

Checkout more biographical information on this great painter at the following sources:

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