This past year I have had the opportunity to live with a small landscape painting—Earthen Spirits, circa 1880s, by Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847 – 1919). It is 11” x 17”, mostly umber, sienna, and Naples yellow oil paint, with a thick, scarred surface. Two figures in the center-foreground grass are walking towards water. Near a teepee in the back, under a gnarly canopy of dark trees, other figures are gathered around small campfires. Through the dark forest a distant field is lit up. I think perhaps there is a group of figures dancing in dim light. I cannot be sure. I mean I have been living with this painting every day and I’m not sure what I am seeing. I ask myself whether these dancing humans are “really there”? Am I hallucinating music and movement in the paint or did Blakelock paint it there? Blakelock’s process of painting, repainting, and scraping and sanding away layers of information creates a surface of shifting, shimmering color. On close inspection, images of figures, teepees, and trees dissolve into swirling dabs of paint. Yet the larger masses of light field and dark forest are in profound tension; the light glows from inside.
The landscape is not so much depicted or described as made alive in the alchemy of paint.
I have taken many walks at twilight in the forests of the Catskills and can attest to the shifting play of rocks and foliage in the near darkness, and to the phantom forms and figures which the mind produces. The Earthen Spirits painting engages me in a similar process where I am aware of constantly creating the image for myself.
In 1869 the twenty-two year-old artist travelled through Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, and California. America was recovering from a devastating civil war. Blakelock travelled alone. He came back awed by the primeval sublime landscape and deeply affected by his time spent among Native peoples’ civilizations. By 1869 the murderous dark energy of civil war was being transferred into the genocide of Native Americans. But Blakelock had glimpsed another world. He spent many months living among the Assiniboines, the Sioux, the Crow, and the Cheyenne. He saw the great aboriginal civilizations of America.
He returned to New York City, married, and slowly established himself as an artist. By 1877 he had begun the great landscape paintings for which he became famous. Although the common narrative depicted Blakelock as a “mad genius,” he was no mystic loner. He followed the latest art movements in New York and in Paris. His studio was in the same building as all the successful and well-known painters of his time, including William Merritt Chase and Winslow Homer. George Inness was down the hall. And all of them undoubtedly heard Blakelock’s loud, pounding tribal-punk piano improvisations . . .
(He was to later play piano in the Vaudeville circuit around Paterson New Jersey.)
In 1890 he created his giant Brook by Moonlight (now in the Toledo Museum of Art). In 1916 it was to sell at auction for the highest price ever paid for an American painting.
By then he had tragically developed late-onset schizophrenia, having been committed to an institution in 1899.
He died in 1919. President Woodrow Wilson sent a telegram of condolence.