Portrait of the Artist and the Time: The Unknown Night

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Picture thousands of New Yorkers waiting on line for hours to see what all the newspapers, critics, and advertisements are raving about. Twelve-year-old Ralph Albert Blakelock could see the queues for tickets from his Greenwich Village home, Glyn Vincent tells us in The Unknown Night: The Genius and Madness of R.A. Blakelock, An American Painter (Grove). But this was no Hollywood blockbuster or rock concert. It was May of 1859 and the crowds of people were breathlessly cramming into the Studio Building to see one painting, The Heart of the Andes, Frederick Church's enormous new panorama.

Author Glyn Vincent
Photo credit: Daniel Lerner

Such vivid and astonishing vignettes fill Glyn Vincent's biography of Ralph Albert Blakelock, perhaps the most important American painter you have never heard of. In 1916, Blakelock's landscape Brook by Moonlight sold at auction for $20,000. No painting by a living American artist had ever gone for such a sum. But, by that time, Blakelock had been in a psychiatric hospital for years, and the flurry of interest and recognition that followed this extraordinary sale led to Blakelock's final undoing. He fell into the clutches of wily fortune-hunter Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams who kept him and the money she made off of him from his family while she made him into her own personal show pony, a pony she worked to death.

The son of a New York City policeman, Blakelock strove to emulate and join the ranks of such celebrated contemporaries as Frederick Church, Albert Bierstadt, and Winslow Homer, but renown, money, and his peers' acceptance proved elusive. He was a resolutely American painter who chose to complete his artistic education by traveling out West to live amongst and paint Indians instead of taking the more traditional European tour.

Always on the brink of either fame or destitution, Blakelock struggled to support a large family while developing his own evocative, looming style, which has been characterized as the earliest instance of abstract expressionism. His travails took him on an uneven ride through late 19th and early 20th century New York: the African-American shantytowns he was drawn to paint; the art world that kept him on its fringe; the vaudeville circuit, where he played the piano for a living; the estates of millionaires who bought his paintings; and the mental hospitals, where he passed many of his later years.

BTW recently interviewed Glyn Vincent.

BTW: How did you come to know Blakelock's work and decide to write his biography?

I first came across Blakelock's name in Jules David Prown's history of American painting. I was intrigued by Blakelock's story -- what little was known -- and surprised that I had never heard of him. It turned out that, except for other artists, most people didn't know who he was. The fact that he had once been the most celebrated artist in America but that his life was shrouded in mystery made him that much more compelling as a subject to me. A few months later there was an exhibition of his work in a New York gallery that included some incredible paintings -- and that decided the matter for me.

BTW: What is your favorite Blakelock painting and why?

I have several. Waterfall by Moonlight is one of them. One of Blakelock's more abstract moonlights, it's a complete inversion of traditional 19th century American art, replacing the bucolic scenes of the countryside with the dream-like landscape of the mind. Dark and mysterious -- I've always had a weakness for Ravel, film noir and the Kafkaesque in literature -- the painting also has this vibrant otherworldly glow that draws you into this imaginary and almost hallucinogenic world. Street in East Orange, with its dramatic chiaroscuro effect and molten skies has a similar highly expressive effect -- as does Outlet on a Mountain Lake, though the setting is more representational.

BTW: Was Blakelock's genius a product of his madness?

The relationship between genius and madness is an extremely complicated and elusive question. It's safe to say that Blakelock's genius as a painter survived for a long time despite the encroachment of mental illness. Many of Blakelock's masterpieces were created in the years immediately before and after his first breakdown. However, it's a mistake to assume that his growing insanity caused him to paint in a more expressive and abstract manner. In fact, quite the opposite seems to hold true. Schizophrenic artists tend to create minute, highly detailed, realist (and repetitive) patterns. In fact, in the asylum Blakelock painted detailed, minutely patterned mimics of currency. His landscapes took on -- at times -- a more naturalistic style and, paradoxically, he based his paintings, for the first time in many years, on actual places. The doctors commented that Blakelock was at his best -- mentally -- when actually painting or discussing art. In other words, the act of painting may well have been Blakelock's last handhold on reality -- a buttress against madness. That being said, Blakelock's eccentric frame of mind, his fanciful intellect, and spiritual flights -- signs of genius and madness? -- certainly contributed to his artistic sensibility.

BTW: You have worked primarily as a playwright and journalist. How did your experience in those genres affect your approach to biography?

My experience and training as a journalist was invaluable. Though art historians had done extensive scholarly research on Blakelock, I quickly discovered that they had neglected some of the most rudimentary research tools of investigative journalism. Primary archival records -- birth, death, and marriage records; church, cemetery, and municipal documents -- had been almost entirely ignored. Armed with these basic facts, I was able to go on to find important secondary materials such as long forgotten obituaries, insightful local and institutional histories, and so on. These, in turn, led to other sources of information. Also, my interviews -- another journalistic staple -- with Blakelock's surviving grandchildren were very important in forming a complete history and portrait of Blakelock's family.

In the course of my research, I was also quite surprised to find that many American art history books were based on earlier art history books that were based on erroneous facts and misguided interpretations. It seems that, until fairly recently, there has been little attempt to re-examine primary sources -- letters, diaries, unpublished biographies, and newspaper reviews dating from that period.

BTW: The Unknown Night depicts life in late 19th century New York City that is a far cry from the genteel world of Henry James and Edith Wharton. What was it like to live on the other side of the tracks -- or Washington Square -- at that time?

Actually my book deals with people who were living on the line between prosperity and poverty. It was a dangerous line that anyone near it was extremely aware of because of the lack, at the time, of a welfare net and the ominous implications of falling into the anonymity of the unprotected masses. Blakelock was born in a tenement -- where he lived with as many as eight relatives -- on the wharves of the Hudson River surrounded by hack drivers, butchers, and carpenters. Lorries filled with garbage and sewage dropped their loads into the river at night. Riots broke out in the streets. Cholera and yellow fever epidemics were a constant threat. However, by the time Blakelock was 19, his father had become an established homeopathic physician and Blakelock's paintings were being shown at the prestigious National Academy of Design, where the cream of society gathered to view art. In the ensuing years, as Blakelock's fortune rose and fell, he continued to visit both worlds, the velvet covered comfort of the drawing room and the streets of the Bowery -- a halfstep from an unmarked grave.

BTW: Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams is the intriguing villain of the piece. A seductive con artist, she exploited and abused the broken but bankable Blakelock -- perhaps even had a hand in his death -- and entirely disenfranchised his wife and family. But if Adams escaped the law, her own end in a mental asylum was certainly poetic justice. There are many bizarre parallels between Adams and Blakelock. They both began life on the margins of society and were determined against all odds to be successful. Both their lives are shaped by repeated self-invention and eventual madness. What do you make of their mysterious relationship?

That their lives met is a very bizarre coincidence worthy of an opera or a black comedy. Blakelock, like any eccentric, tended to attract others. Many of Blakelock's friends and acquaintances -- from the great artist George Inness to the spiritualist John B. Newbrough or the troubadour stage driver Nat Stein -- had idiosyncratic personalities. It's also interesting that many of Blakelock's acquaintances, even the millionaires like Benjamin Altman (a social recluse) and Catholina Lambert, were of first-generation immigrant stock and self-made men. Certainly, as you pointed out, Adams and Blakelock had humble origins and a certain amount of ambition (and delusions!) in common, but otherwise they followed the beat of different drummers. How far Adams went physically, in flirting with and manipulating so many different men, some of great social position and wealth, is something that, so far, is still a mystery.

BTW: What do Blakelock's tragic life story and the dramatic shifts in his artistic reputation over the years say about America and American attitudes about art?

Until the last half of the 20th century, Americans had very little regard for something as impractical as art, especially American art. What interest they did have in it was often confined to its usefulness as an investment. And like other fashionable investments they can be worth a lot of money one day and next to nothing the next. As the art critic Dave Hickey put it, "art is cheap, but priceless." A lot depends on the context and the times.

There was a moment in America in the late 1850s and the 1860s when art was something to talk about and admire. Like movies today, a painting could draw large crowds and make headlines in the papers. Artists like Church and Bierstadt were celebrities and cultural heroes. Their grand panoramas of the American wilderness helped define our identity as a nation. Within a few decades they had been forgotten and died in obscurity.

Gradually, with the advent of blockbuster art shows, the general public has once again become familiar with American masters like Church and Bierstadt and reacquainted with modern greats like Pollock and Warhol. Looking back at the cultural detritus of our few centuries of existence, it seems we are eager to discover and rediscover who we are and were through the paintings of various eras. For those interested in how self-expression became such an important part of American art, Blakelock provides a vital link to the past and to our roots. And though his topsy-turvy life so exemplifies the arbitrary nature of art styles and fashions, it also demonstrates the timelessness of a visionary idea. -- Molly Sackler