A probing, top-flight study of Ralph Albert Blakelock’s difficult life (1847–1919) and visionary art, from playwright and art journalist Vincent.
The ups and downs of Blakelock’s career were as radical as the painting he brought to the American art scene in the late 19th century. That he was confined to a New York insane asylum and exploited subsequently by the nefarious Beatrice Adams are perhaps the best known chapters in the artist’s personal life, and Vincent handles them ably (especially the romantic fancy that madness and genius walk hand in hand). But what makes this stand out is Vincent’s concentration on Blakelock’s art itself and on the milieu he worked in after his return from the American West. New York City was still in the grips of the National Academy and of Church and Bierstadt when Blakelock, working in a pastoral style, started to attract minor attention. But times and tastes were changing: the Society of American Artists was supplanting the National Academy, Blakelock was experimenting with a looser, more idiosyncratic style, and critics and collectors were responding favorably. Vincent shows how his landscapes had a poetry and glow suggesting not just an intuitive vision but a startlingly Modernist one—focused, luminous, pulling the landscape out of the pastoral and into, if not the subconscious, at least the imagination. After his first breakdown, Blakelock went further still, beyond mysticism and the Barbizons and even the Swedenborgians, approaching Abstract Expressionism in its attention to surface and emotion and jarring juxtapositions, “like a prophet or a shaman, mumbling descriptions few could understand, while pointing up ahead toward a new land yet to be discovered.” Sadly, his illness kept him out of circulation for the last 15 years of his life, as he and his needy family were swindled.
Thanks to Vincent, readers will want to go straight to the art for a good, hard look. (8 pages color illustrations)