Elliott Daingerfield.

Ralph Albert Blakelock online

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University of California Berkeley

If you are interested in paintings by this artist
or by other American masters, Mr. Sher-
man will be glad to furnish you with pho-
tographs of attractive examples, together
with full descriptions. He has now fine
pictures by Winslow Homer, Ralph Al-
bert Blakelock, Albert P. Ryder, J. Alden
Weir, Wm. Gedney Bunce, Homer D.
Martin, J. Francis Murphy, Robert L.
Newman, John S. Sargent and Wyatt

Frederic Fairchild Sherman

28 East 85th Street

New York City



aTv-.viaq A HI

.rfgiri ;:3f,'

Canvas. Signed at the right. 9 inches high, 5 l / 2 inches wide.






Copyright, 1914, by
Frederic Fairchild Sherman


Going to the Spring Frontispiece

The Ghost Dance Page 16

Indian Encampment ...... 16

Pegasus 24

Indian Camp 24

Moonlight " 26

At Nature's Mirror " 30

The Captive . 30

The Brook by Moonlight " 33

Moonlight . " 36




T IS often the fate of a man to be mis*
understood in his own generation, even
to be ignored, and if his pursuit in life be
Art this is particularly the case, because
it is the few who find deep enough inter*
est in the matter to devote time and study to acquiring
knowledge. It is far easier to accept the fashion of the
hour, and, since our walls demand pictures for their
decoration, obviously it is best to secure those which
are the fashion. The fate of such a man is not a hard
one essentially, although it may mean privation.
There is an implied compliment in the negligence, a
suggestion that he is not understood, and so, quite un*
consciously, the public places him upon a height. This
is a comforting sort of reasoning, but does not mean to
say that the condition is a right one. A man who is
in earnest deadly earnest that kind of earnestness
which is willing to endure sacrifice, that man knows
that he labors for a small audience. His appeal is to
the cultivated few, and rarely, I think, does a man
live and work well in a complete and solitary silence.
Somebody knows, and somebody cares for his work,
perhaps understands it, and this is the great reward,
to be understood.

The province of the artist being to express the beau*
tiful, a phrase that from oft repetition becomes rather
a platitude, though it should be an axiom, he is in
some sort a messenger, and there can be no need of a
messenger if there is no message. If, then, he tries to
deliver his message of beauty, sad indeed is his lot if
he can not win at least an audience of one.

A great value in a work of art is that we may read
the man in his work, nay, more, we may read the
man and his time, and art which is immortal renders
a people immortal.

Fashion, tendency of the time, schools of art, the
dealers, are influences behind most of what passes
current as the art of the day, but somewhere in a gar*
ret, maybe, a solitary man, -working in his own way,
oblivious to the schools or the clamor of fashion, ere?
ates -work which surely finds the light and arouses the
highest and noblest emotions.

In our own land it is curious how many of the
greatest painters are without the tradition of School.
Self-taught we say in the catalogues. The reason is
not to be found by inveighing against schools, which
are very useful, very needful indeed to the ordinary
sort of student, but it is rather because men of genius
need no rule, their foundations are built within their
own souls, and the convictions of such sanctuary in*
evitably beget great works.

Therefore to stand alone, free, independent, is
almost a necessity for great result.

I have heard men say, "I must make my work


more like the things other men are doing." There
is nothing more deadly, nor more indicative of me*
diocrity, nothing which more stultifies the mind or
more surely points with unerring finger to the com*
monplace. It is insincere, and when that is said, the
final breath of hope is gone, for no good art can exist
without sincerity.

There are those who argue that a man may follow
a leader with great sincerity. The answer is, in art
each man must be a leader, not a follower, for no two
men are alike, no two souls are given the same mes?
sage, and while it may amuse the critic to trace like?
ness, the great truth remains that true art is personal.

Long hair does not make personality, nor would
the wearing of green trousers. Eccentricity is the
vanity of feeble talent. The thing has been hinted
at, it is the aspiration of the soul.

If Ingres' line had no other quality than its ex?
actness it could not have been, as it is, great art.
If our admiration for Franz Hals stops or begins at
his brush? work we have not seen the true Hals.
I know, quite well, in saying this I shall be contra?
dieted, for to the majority Hals is marvelous because,
and only because he had the most dexterous touch
the world has seen; but he had something more, and
the keenness and precision of his observation, his
complete grasp of the entity of his portrait, these were
quite as marvelous as his brush. Dexterity is not
enough. \Ve look and gasp even, we marvel and ad?
mire, but we see with our eyes only, and are not

lured in the spirit. The way, the manner, is not the
fine thing in a noble work, though it may, for the
moment, charm. V/hat has been said to me in this
picture? how much finer is the observation than my
own? Can I love the report here set down always?
Is the mind of the observer ennobled? Such things
give value.

A work of art should express some profound love
or belief in the heart of the artist belief in the har*
mony, in the design, in the effect, as well as in the
meaning, else it is merely a work of craft, handicraft,
and to be valued as such.

This does not exclude those things which are at*
tempts to render impressions received from nature,
however passing, because beautiful impressions are
the creators in us of our intensest loves.

\Vhen I am in the presence of work which tells
me any or all of these things, I know that an artist
has spoken.

It is with some such thought that I contemplate the
work of Ralph Albert Blakelock.


MR. BLAKELOCK was born in New York, on
Greenwich Street, I think, in 1 84 7. His father,
an Englishman by birth, was a Homeopathic physi?
cian. There is little record of the boy's earlier years,
no evidence that much time was given to education,
and always he seems to have had the love of painting


and a passionate love of music. \Vhether these gifts
descended to him from some ancestral source, we do
not know, or whether, as in so many distinguished
cases, his gifts came to him directly; in any event he
heeded the call of art and very early in life began to
paint. His desires did not lead him to enter any art
school, or seek the guidance of any special master.

He began to teach himself by the laborious but
most valuable method of close study from nature.
Very painful are those early ventures, for some of
them still exist, and wholly devoid of any suggestion
of the knowledge of craft. One may imagine him
doing precisely what other boys have done trying
with small brushes to reproduce every little thing be?
fore the eyes. How tiny are the touches, how feeble
the grasp of form in its largeness of character, and yet
there is so much of faithful devotion to his task, that
we know both hand and brain were gaining in power
and understanding. \Ve may believe, however, that
at the outset he was not equipped with great powers
of observation. To the unfolding, expanding mind,
there is no teacher of so great worth as observation
not merely the ability to see acutely or fully, but that
rarer phase in which selection is the significant thing.
To be able to see fully and select finely those qualities
or parts which best indicate character that is obser*
vation, artistic observation, and later by its use will
come the gift which is the hardest to obtain, and the
last to come in the development of an artist, the abik
ity to omit. This brings synthesis, the utmost remove,


probably, from reality, but the realm in which the
noblest creations of art may be found. It does not
come early in life. It is won by travail and strain,
even suffering, and the synthesist of fifty is usually
the liter alist at sixteen.

\Vith Blakelock his training was slow and achieved
under great handicap. Revelation did not come until
later. He never went abroad, although he was an in=
tense lover, we are told, of the old masters. Just what
that means it is difficult to say, because at the time we
had, in America, little which was of value from the
great painters of long ago. The museums were much
cluttered with trash, since removed, and the great
wave of importation, inaugurated by dealers and col?
lectors which has brought to us many of the precious
canvases of the world, had not begun. \Ve must
believe, then, that his love was based on photographic
reproduction, which is admirable ground for study,
but one is forced to consider form alone in these works
since color is denied, or at best only suggested.

Later we are to say that Mr. Blakelock was a dev?
otee of color, one to whom color was pure music.
\Vhence, then, did his inspiration come? The answer
is not easy.

Probably when he made his first journey to the
V/est and began to study the Indians, when the
barbaric depth of their color, the richness and pleni^
tude of reds and yellows, the strength of shadow and
brilliancy of light awakened his vision and set tingling
those pulses of the brain which control the color

emotions. His own soul an untamed one, responding
to no conventional law, these children of forest and
plain appealed to his deepest instincts. Until the end
of his career, they ever and again recur in his corns
positions. Never, I think, did he attempt portraiture
Indian portraiture but the nomadic life, the inci?
dents of daily routine, the building of canoes, or pitch?
ing of encampments, the dances, these were his
themes and his love for them never cooled or grew
less. V/e have no drawings or group of studies in
which to trace his processes. \Vhether or not he
made direct studies from life, or by intense concentra?
tion secured his information, does not matter here.
\Ve have the results and through them we know his

He was always an experimentalist. \Vho is not
when seeking to improve? But with him experiment
led into many fields, and chance was not scorned if
he could gain from her whims. It was not unusual
with him when some interesting mingling of color
chanced upon his palette, to develop it there into what?
ever theme was suggested, and cut out the chosen
piece of wood as expressive of artistic value. \Ve find
many of these little panels, unimportant so far as sub?
ject is concerned, but very beautiful in quality both of
color and of surface.

These two words, quality and surface, come quick?
ly to mind when critically examining a Blakelock,
even an unimportant one. These merits do not seem
to be secured by a trick, as so often is said, yet no

doubt the purely experimental ones may seem so; but
taking them for what they are, experiments in the
procedure of development, and then turning to the
nobler canvases of the man, the ideas of trick, of
sham, of chance, pass speedily away and we see the
work of a man who, seeing and feeling artistically,
tried to express himself in a technique fitted to his de?
sires. He would have had little patience with the
man who says the only honest painting is that which
takes the mixed tint from the palette and applies it to
the canvas with as glib a touch as may be, moulding
and modeling his bit of form in its light and atmcs*
phere as deftly as possible, and frankly avows all else
to be bad art.

Such men doubtless exist, but they know nothing
of the subtleties of color, the influence of one tone
vibrating through another, the increased luster of
tone upon tone, and the magic carrying power of cer*
tain colors for certain others nor do they know the
beauty of surface, surface merely, when the paint
has been so applied that future workings find a tooth,
a mat to hold the tint making it resonant, deep, luster*
fill, glowing even into the depths of shadowed blacks.
These things Mr. Blakelock knew and practiced with
the love of a musician for his tone.

Literary questions, story telling, moral meanings,
nor history were in his ideals of art. With his love
for the Indian he might have essayed profound lessons
for the renascence of the race, a recrudescence of their
primitive privileges, and failed in his art. Rather he

sought in their lives and habits the beauty which
would lend itself to the art of painting, the rhythmic
sway of figures in the dance seen dimly under the
shadowy trees, the silent tepee with the lingering
light concentrated upon it the barbaric mingling of
colorful groups in contrast with deep woodland shad?
ows. It was enough for him to search out the beauty
of these. He probably would not have liked that rare
and dignified Indian picture of Mr. George de Forest
Brush, "The Sculptor and the King," with its re?
minder of a romantic page in an almost forgotten his?
tory. He, doubtless, would have found fault with
the severe intellectuality of the treatment, and this
reason traced further merely means that the theme
was not treated by Mr. Brush subjectively.

Blakelock always expressed himself subjectively,
and, in his ripened art, with complete success. This
is one of the precious qualities in the work he has
given us.


DURING all his life, probably, Mr. Blakelock
was harassed by the need of money. Very
probably, also, he was not provident with that which
came into his hands, and being careless in his expendi?
tures he was constantly in need.

It is an oft urged dictum that an artist is better off
-without money, his art should be all in all to him,
but our modern life imposes obligations in the mere

business of keeping alive, which keeps this thought
very prominently in mind, and no argument is needs
ed in suggesting the value to any mind* worker of a
mind at peace. This is one of the pitiful things in this
man's career, that his advance toward that brilliancy
which would have rewarded him and finally did
honor his time, was so greatly impeded, if not meas*
urably reduced, and the man himself broken upon
the wheel of suffering . Of the shadowed mind which
closed forever his labors, certainly the story is sad

Mr. Blakelock was married and had a large family.
He had known his wife since childhood. She is still
living, the family much scattered, and every picture
and study has been disposed of to stay the smart of
need. Mrs. Blakelock knows the burden of hard
work, and the wolf has often looked in her door, but
she is a brave and patient woman !

There are countries which do not allow such
things to be, countries that we consider far behind
our own in civilization which recognize the perman*
ent value of art and see to it that suffering shall not
stay a gifted hand.

Mrs. Blakelock talks gently and quietly of her hus*
band. She tells many little stories which show his
extreme devotion to his art its dominance in every
moment of life. She tells of his habit of seeing pic=
tures, compositions, in everything, the markings on
old boards ; the broken or worn enamel in the bath*
tub being a field of great suggestiveness. Painters




Canvas. Signed at the right. 21 inches high, 39 inches wide


Canvas. Signed at the left. 37 inches high, 40 inches wide.


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will have no difficulty in understanding this just
how the shadows and lights will twinkle or break
up how the glow in the exposed copper will sug=
gest sunset sky, and the shining higher note become
the gleam of light on water . Such things are frequent
and very interesting in an artist's experience.

In his years of work Blakelock had evolved a style,
a style so specific that it might be said his pictures are
all alike. This is not true except in so far as his
method makes them alike. There were times when
in the search for great darkness he used bitumen to
the detriment of his work. It is a trying, though very
seductive color, and has proved an enemy to many a
painter's works. It never really dries, and under cer*
tain conditions of heat it becomes moist and gummy,
worse, it runs. There is a very amusing though
sufficiently tragic story about two pictures of Blake?
lock's. A gentleman, who owned some nine of his
works, came to me one day and said, "You remem?
ber my Blakelocks?" "Yes," I said. " Well, I found
two of them on the floor this morning . " k L You should
have used stronger wire," I told him. " \Vire noths
ing," he flared back, "The frames are hanging on the
wall all right, but the pictures just slipped off the
canvas, and were lying on the floor in a mass of
brown gum."

The truth was, probably, that the weather had
been very hot and the bituminous color melted away
from the panel and slipped off to the floor. Such a
thing would never happen again, and no one need

feel anxious. Blakelock gave up the use of bitumen
and secured his darks in a wiser manner and with
better colors.

It is a curious truth that a great workman pursues
his craft under the very eye of those who love him and
wonder at his abilities, that he will often have friends
who become intensely interested in his methods, and
watch daily feats of craftsmanship which are almost
magical in their results, and achieved by processes,
principles and laws which the workman has perfected
for himself, eliminating all element of haphazard or
chance, and which from repetition become almost a
sort of portrait of himself, and yet no one sits down
and reports this man's speech; no one tells us specific^
ally of that process which brings about the beauty
and which, if told, would be immensely interesting to
the general public.

That Blakelock suffers this fate is matter for real
regret, and he has never written a word about his
work, himself, or his craft. "We can discover much,
and if one is used to kindred processes it is not difficult
to tell the manner of his procedure. The effect of thin
paint in itself was not satisfying to him. He needed
a firm, hard, impasto ground. This was doubtless
achieved by staining in the form he wished, always
a tentative and slight theme and about this he
wrought a thick, rich, opaque body of silvery tone.
He used most frequently ^Vinsor and Newton colors
and dilute varnish, (copal) as a medium.

At one time he experimented in making varnishes,


and many painters will remember the "Blakelock
Varnish" which was on sale. Ttiis was probably no
more than a good copal with a few drops of cold
pressed linseed oil added.

\Vhen the silvery ground of his picture was hard
and dry, he floated upon it more forms, using thin
paints much richer in quality of color; when partly
dry these were flattened with a palette knife, the
forms brought into relief by subtle wipings, and once
more allowed to dry. This process was repeated fre*
quently , and when the surface became gummy or over
glazed, he reduced it by grinding with pumice stone.
The effect of this would bring the under silver of his
first impasto into view, and with this for his key
of gray he developed his theme, drawing with the
darker and relieving with the under paint.

So bald a statement as this refers only to procedure,
and has nothing whatever to do with the genius which
guided the hand in each touch, nor with the taste or
sense of color which controlled every move. It is
offered to those who wish to know how Blakelock got
his effect. By him it was very beautiful; by another
it might be foolishness.

It was the custom of old Turner, the great English
painter, to allo w no one in the studio while he worked,
nor to see him make his outdoor sketches, ^/e can
not believe it was timidity with him, or a modest
doubt about his ability to do the thing well. That he
objected to any one's finding out his methods is the
more likely reason, and we miss very much the hints

which would have given us a clue to the wonder of
his color and textile accomplishments.

In Blakelock the problem is easier for any one who
has acquaintance with technical methods, or the mys=
teries of the palette.

The accusation against Blakelock that his canvases
blacken with time is hardly fair and seldom true, ex*
cept in the cases noted, and if I am correct in the
description of procedure, it is a simple matter if a cans
vas is suspected of darkening, to expose it to direct
sunlight, which wonderfully freshens and clarifies the
color. I doubt if the artist himself ever failed to do this,
and it is a much easier thing to do than to subject a sub?
tie work to the untender hands of a restorer, who, to
brighten a work, removes entirely the last exquisite
modulations of the artist.


HOV/ long he was in reaching the power to ex*
press himself completely, to produce those dis=
tinguished works which we know to be his, is a
matter of little moment, at best a question of opinion.
\Vhat really concerns us is that against all the hard
conditions which surrounded him and beset his years,
he continued to work and to hold faithfully all the
canons ofhis artistic faith. Also, he succeeded and the
light ofhis genius found true expression.

To say of a picture, it is like a Blakelock, is high
praise and suggests color, quality, tone and complete


unity. That his style was formed upon his own con*
victions is evident. He could not have known Isabey,
nor Monticelli, both of whom might have influenced
him. Knowledge of the Barbizon men was probably
slight, and of little influence upon his mind.

Here, then, we have a man -whose work is like none
of his great contemporaries.

Inness, \Vyant, Homer Martin, he must have
known well, but there is no trace, to me, of their in?
fluence in his work.

I should think he might have loved Albert Ryder
intensely. At times the quality of light is very similar
in their work.

I remember a picture Ryder once showed me in his
studio this studio was merely a back room in an or*
dinary house and the sun shone brightly in the win?
dow. The picture was a moonlight, and I complained
that the sunlight fell full upon the canvas. Ryder
moved it into a corner, and the canvas shone and
gleamed with the rare beauty of pure light. To my
exclamations of wonder Ryder gently said, "That is
what I call its magical quality!" It is just this magic
that makes the kinship with Blakelock.

It has been said that to be truly great, a man's art
must found a school, it must be of such compelling
power that it will have a following, and everywhere
we should see reflections of the artist's genius. If this
be so then Blakelock is not a great man. No school
came into being, no group of men, believing and un=
derstanding his ideas, carries on his work. Of imita?


tors there are many, men who think it is easy to
make a canvas look like a Blakelock, and they hurry
to do it because of late the works of Blakelock are in
demand, but these paltry things are mere gummy
masses rubbed together and left glaze upon glaze to
disgust one who understands -what Blakelock did in
his fine things. The impression is very false that he
secured his effects by heavy, superimposed glazes.
That he knew the use and value of a glaze as few men
now do is true, but many very beautiful examples of
his work exist in which the quality seems to have
been secured at the outset, and, because of that very
precious thing, left alone. Bring together a large num?
ber of his pictures, and his range at once becomes ap*
parent. Not only range of technical method, but of
idea and theme. That he should enjoy the very mani*
pulation of paint itself in his search for effect is only
to say what all colorists enjoy. There is something
amounting to an insanity in the emotions aroused
when color is behaving, when it is obedient to the
guiding will of the painter, and resolving itself into
glow, jewels, atmosphere, light, or velvet shadow.

All painters are not endowed with such sensi?
tive emotions, and perhaps will not concur with me.

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Online LibraryElliott DaingerfieldRalph Albert Blakelock → online text (page 1 of 3)