History of the Nebraska Blakelock Inventory
Norman A. Geske
The Sheldon Museum of Art acquired R. A. Blakelock’s Moonlight in 1960. The work was seen as an example of the artist’s best-known subject matter, but it was an example with a difference. Although Moonlight contains all the requisite themes—a nocturnal sky, a dark landscape, moonlight reflected in water—the image is reduced to near abstraction, a wholly subjective transformation of experience. The subject is subsumed within the medium; oil paint is made to speak for itself.
To digress for a moment, this painting is a striking demonstration of one of Blakelock’s most idiosyncratic practices. It is notable that as a preliminary for a considerable number of his works, he would lay down on the canvas or panel an undercoat of a freely brushed substance resembling plaster, French chalk, or talc, with no intention of creating a correspondence with the image that he would lay over it. This surface was then rubbed dry to eliminate peaks and ridges. The artist’s daughter Ruth recalled seeing her father holding such a panel under the tap to blur the pattern and afterward rubbing it down again with pumice to produce a smooth yet textured surface. The Sheldon’s Moonlight shows the result: the ephemera of moonlight, reality transformed.
The ability to step outside habit; to cross the line of established convention; to discover a new awareness of space, color, and form is at the heart of The Unknown Blakelock. If one reviews the span of the artist’s activity, it is immediately apparent that a chronological development of style—his manner of working—is difficult, if not impossible, to describe. At the beginning, little more can be seen than the work of a novice copying his mentor. Later, his brief period of education at New York’s Free Academy amounted to some small acquaintance with anatomy. Essentially from the beginning, he was on his own in the learning process, free to exercise is innate perceptions of how the world looked.
Blakelock paid his respects to the dominating fashion of the Hudson River School in a major effort that, it must be admitted, proved that he could do it but was an accomplishment that did not take. Of Barbizon, there is ample evidence that he was aware of the innovations in the work of the French painters. Their view of nature was, like his own, subjective and inventive.
The optical realism of full-blown impressionism was not part of his vision, but impressionism had his attention in some high-keyed beach scenes that reflect the quasi-impressionism of Johan Jongkind or Eugene Boudin. There is also one moment that seems to indicate that he saw some of Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral series at Durand-Ruel’s New York gallery: three little paintings—painterly, rich, and sensuous—that depict the same subject in the morning, at noon, and at night. With no commitment to academic method or to the fashion of the moment, he approached each work with a fresh eye, loyal only to his own perceptions.
In his travels in the West, in Jamaica, or closer to home in the upper reached of Manhattan, he found something new—not only different subject matter, but new ways of seeing—in the blazing light in the western landscape, the enveloping luxuriance of the tropics, and the picturesque realism of people, buildings, and weather. In each of these modes, there seems to be another artist at work, completely at home in these different ways of seeing.
These digressions demonstrate the spontaneous flow of the artist’s creativity in images that are very different from the “moonlights” and “Indian encampments” for which he is best known. It is worth noting that in each instance there is nothing like them in the painting of the time. The characteristic that links these works more than any other is the evidence of Blakelock’s love of the painter’s medium. It is transparent and dry in the western subjects, sensuous and atmospheric in the tropics, and briskly realistic in the depiction of the terrain, buildings, figures, and weather in the shanty paintings. This capacity for inventing new solutions in the face of new experiences sets him apart from his closest contemporaries—Albert Pinkham Ryder, George Fuller, and Robert Loftin Newman—whose work is more or less consistent from beginning to end. In a sense Blakelock was self-taught throughout his career and was always independent of expectations.
A recent, purely fortuitous development in the continuous flow of works attributed to the artist that have come to the attention of the Nebraska Blakelock Inventory is an extraordinary painting that epitomizes in every way the very idea of the unknown Blakelock. In an unusual format, seven by twenty-one inches, it depicts Niagara Falls in a view that illustrates the traditional legend of “The Maid of the Mist.” The use of an exact location is rare in itself, but even more unusual is his design for the subject. We are at the very brink of the falls, the depth of the gorge invisible. The foreground is filled with foaming water. The opposite edge is white with spray, and against it there is the hint of a rainbow. At the left, poised at the edge, is the figure of a woman, arms raised, the sacrificial figure of the legend. Above, along the entire upper length of the scene, is an opalescent sky and a barely suggested wooded horizon.
At first it seems hardly possible that his painting can be the work of Blakelock. Aside from the unusual composition, the daring immediacy of the experience is like nothing else in the range of his work. Water as an element in the landscapes of the artist is almost always a matter of mirrored stillness or, at most, a liquid flow. Here it is tumultuous and awe inspiring. The contrast of the tumult with a placid sky is the choice of an exhilarated imagination that underlines the dramatic ritual of sacrifice.
Most of all, however, it is the figure of the girl that spells “Blakelock.” Although the artist was not in any large sense a figure painter, the human presence is, even so, a constant factor in his work, almost always embedded in the texture of the scene, barely more than a colored accent. The mounted Indian that is the focus of several of the most impressive moonlights is a tiny silhouette, all but overwhelmed by nocturnal space. Again and again Blakelock populates his wooded landscapes with single figures with their backs to the observer. There is one painting of a hunter with his dog and another of a trout fisherman, but alone and almost invisible in the gloom of their surroundings. For Blakelock, the human being is a small thing in nature. The symbolism is implicit in Maiden in the Mist.
We know that on the occasion of his first or second trip to the West, he went by way of Albany, which would have put him in the path of Niagara, a sight not to be missed. It can be noted that the figure hardly suggests an Indian, her gesture notwithstanding, but she does resemble the retreating figure that occurs in a number of his woodland landscapes.
Blakelock, among the painters of the last half of the nineteenth century, is exceptional in the deeply personal quality of his search for expression, a search that was largely free of tradition an convention and open to the autonomy of individual insight and perhaps, the prescience of things to come.