Background: Ralph Blakelock was born in New York City on October 15, 1847
Education: Blakelock began studies at the Free Academy of the City of New York (now known as the City College) in 1864 . He dropped out after his third term, opting to forgo formal education. From 1869–72 he traveled alone through the American West, wandering far from American settlements and spending time among the American Indians. Largely self-taught as an artist, he began producing competent landscapes, as well as scenes of Indian life, based on his notebooks he filled while traveling and on his personal memories and feelings.
Achievements: Within a few years the paintings he had once sold for next to nothing were resold for several thousand dollars. In 1916, Blakelock was made an Academician of the National Academy of Design. Meanwhile, Blakelock languished in the Middletown State Insane Asylum, whose administration and staff were unaware of his fame as an artist, and who viewed his belief that his paintings were in major museums as one more sign of his illness. While confined he continued to paint in ink, painting on the backs of cardboard and various supports, substituting bark and his own hair for brushes.
In 1916, one of Blakelock’s landscapes sold at auction for $20,000, setting a record for a painting by a living American artist. It was this impressive price that captured the imagination of Sadie Filbert, who had reinvented herself as the socially prominent Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams so that she could swindle the wealthy by persuading them to donate to charitable causes that would, in fact, serve to enrich herself. She founded and milked the Blakelock Fund, which was supposed to support the impecunious artist and his needy brood. She informed Harrison Smith, then a young reporter with the New York Tribune, of Blakelock’s whereabouts, and he went to see Blakelock in the asylum. He found him largely lucid, although under the delusion that an imagined “diamond of the Emperor of Brazil” had been stolen from him. Smith explained to the asylum director who Blakelock was, and managed to arrange to bring Blakelock and the director to Manhattan, where a major gallery retrospective of Blakelock’s work was taking place. Blakelock was awed by the changes in the city in the two decades since he had last seen it, and thrilled to see the recognition his work had received. Smith scored himself a major news story. (In a 1945 account, Smith added that Blakelock had quietly informed him that several of the paintings were forgeries, but Smith chose not to put that in his story because of the question of how far he could rely on the word of the less than fully sane Blakelock.) These events led to Blakelock’s release from the asylum, in the “care” of Sadie Filbert, alias Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams, who milked him for all he was worth.
Blakelock’s early landscapes have their genesis in the style of the Hudson River school of painters. In time, he developed a more subjective and intimate style. His favorite themes were those depicting the wilderness and solitude; evocative and emotional paintings of illuminated moments in nature, of moonlit landscapes and twilight hours and Indian camps in the solitude of nature. He was also heavily influenced by the French Barbizon School, whose painters also favored dark forests and heavily worked surfaces. Blakelock technique was highly personal and through his individualistic style his paintings summoned the viewer into a luminous, almost other worldly realm. In the majority of his paintings, space is given depth by the use of light; moonlight most often. Along with his contemporary Albert Pinkham Ryder, Ralph Albert Blakelock was one of the most individual American painters of his time.
One of his many paintings entitled Moonlight was sold at the highest price ever paid for the work of a living American artist at that time. Sadly, his rise in public notoriety along with the increase in his art sales never benefited his family or himself. By 1903 his works were being forged, so much so, that he remains today as “perhaps the most forged” artist in America. Such was the final ironic touch to one of the most tragic stories in American art.