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: The Vista by Ralph Blakelock


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
In the Centenary Exhibition of Paintings by Ralph Albert Blakelock, held at The Whitney Museum of American Art last spring, there appeared a small landscape called The Vista which had been lost to general view for some twenty-five years. This canvas, formerly in the collection of Mrs. John Washburn, has recently been presented to the Art Institute by Mrs. Lyndon King, to whom it was bequeathed by Mrs. Washburn in 1941. The gift is a doubly welcome one, for it reinforces the collection of nineteenth century American paintings with a fine example of Blakelock's art and brings to a public collection a canvas which has been too long missing from the group of works established as by Blakelock's hand.The Vista is a Romantic landscape in which Blakelock's poetic vision of nature is presented in the glowing, harmonious tones that distinguished some of his best canvases. It is not nature in its actuality that one sees in this painting; it is Blakelock's improvisation on the themes of stillness, melancholy, and solitude which everyone has sensed, at one time or another, in the presence of nature. About it there is something dark and disturbing for all its warmth of color. In such a spot, surrounded by towering trees and wrapped in a silence so profound it almost speaks, one could feel terror pluck his nerves and so flee in panic from the dark forest to the golden light of the plain beyond. Nothing moves in this landscape; there is no flight of birds in the sky and "no sound, or sight of sound, to say that even a leaf has left in it a whisper."This quietude, this mystery, this remoteness, is what most appealed to Blakelock in nature and it is in his subjective treatment of his chosen theme which places him among the high Romantics in American painting. Forests he claimed for his own, as Ryder claimed the sea. He painted them at dawn, at sunset, at twilight, and in the pale glow of the moon֫indecisive times, all of them, when he could put into his painting the lonely beauty which he had felt strongly from the beginning and passionately after his journey to the far West in 1869.Blakelock's obsession with forests, which grew as his art developed, led to a certain repetitiveness which has prompted the belief, in some quarters, that one Blakelock is very like another. In a sense this is so. The mood is always quiet and melancholy and the formula Blakelock followed in giving it substance varies little from one canvas to another. His compositions have a definite pattern which is worked out so carefully and so repeatedly that it seems almost compulsory, as if Blakelock were unconsciously reflecting, in the arrangement of his painting, the pattern of his life—the dark foreground of the now merging imperceptibly but surely into the golden haze of a longed-for future.The foreground of his landscape is usually occupied by trees rendered in the darkest tone of a fairly limited color scheme. These trees are almost invariably arranged to form a frame that encloses a vista which stretches in receding planes of lighter, cooler tones to the horizon. The pale tones are normally maintained in the sky but sometimes they deepen to gold or to a singing blue in the high arch that sweeps up and back to meet the soaring trees of the foreground. Against the sky the trees stand out in silhouette, their leaves and branches delicately drawn. They have no great substance in Blakelock's paintings, but they have little substance in reality in the half-lights of morning and evening that most appealed to the artist. They possess, instead, exactly the tenuousness which conveys to the observer the dreamlike and fugitive quality Blakelock felt in nature.The Vista is a typical example of Blakelock's compositional style, but in coloring it is more sumptuous than many of his landscapes. The normally muted scheme of green or brown or gold is enlivened by touches of crimson and orange and the upper half of the sky is a deep, cloudless blue of the hue that one often sees just after sunset in the late summer or early autumn. The colors are made more dramatic by Blakelock's method of painting; a method that reveals a sensuous feeling for texture which is achieved by the use of heavy impasto and by underpainting roughed up by a meat skewer and rubbed down before the final repainting. This technique, especially when combined with rich colors and small areas of broken color, gives Blakelock's work a vibrant quality that plays an important part in his interpretation of nature.Neither his technique nor his view of nature was appreciated in his day. Blakelock was one of a small group of nineteenth century American artists who maintained his integrity as an artist in spite of the fact that it was to bring him only humiliation, defeat, and, finally, madness. Like some of his contemporaries, he was entirely self-taught. Unlike many of them, he preferred to draw his inspiration from his own country rather than from Europe, and at a time when many American artists were going to Paris or Munich for experience he turned to the far West. It was there that his poetic vision of nature flowered.Unhappily for him, the taste of his time was for a more literal view of nature, and it was only through the help of a few friends and collectors that he was able to maintain his large family as long as he did. He was forced to sell his paintings for paltry sums. Therefore, in order to produce enough pictures to create any volume at the low prices he received he was frequently guilty of careless work and repetition. He continued to produce fine pictures, however, and it was not until he was subjected to the humiliation of selling one of his greatest works for less than half what he asked for it that his mind completely gave way and he was placed in an asylum.In the meantime his work suddenly began to command higher prices—none of which benefited his family—and so great was the interest aroused by his paintings that they were widely forged; a circumstance which has made it difficult to establish the authenticity of Blakelock's work. However, a series of exhibitions, of which the recent Centenary at the Whitney was one of the best and certainly the most carefully documented, have placed Blakelock among the great individualists and Romantics in the history or American painting. To him, as to several of his contemporaries, fame came too late to avert tragedy, but it came, as he must have believed it would, in the end.Referenced Work of Art
  1. The Vista by Ralph Albert Blakelock, American, 1847-1919. A gift to the Art Institute from Mrs. Lyndon King
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Source: "The Vista by Ralph Blakelock," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 36, no. 24 (October, 1947): 121-123.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009