Ralph Blakelock was born in 1847 in New York City, where his father was a homeopathic physician. It was the parent's wish that his son also follow a career in medicine, but after three semesters at the Free Academy of the City of New York (later the City College of New York), Blakelock ended his institutional education in 1866 and informally took up the study of art, particularly landscape painting. During the late 1860s he made several sketching trips in upstate New York and New Hampshire. His debut at the National Academy of Design occurred in 1868, when he exhibited a view of the White Mountains.
The following year he began the first of two extended visits (financed by his father) to the western territories of the United States. Traveling by train, coach, and horseback, he crossed areas of Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada. After spending time in California, he ventured south into Mexico, probably returning by ship in 1871, via the isthmus of Panama. A second western trip took place in 1872. Blakelock drew constantly during his time in the West. It was here that he became interested in one of his most enduring subjects, Native Americans.
Back in New York Blakelock continued to exhibit sporadically, at the National Academy as well as the Society of American Artists and the Brooklyn Art Association. His work, however, found little critical favor, and after his marriage to Cora R. Bailey in 1877, he began to experience difficulty providing for his growing family, which eventually included nine children. Blakelock's initial landscapes had been careful, unassuming views that owed a great deal to the previous generation of Hudson River School painters. By about 1880, however, his style was evolving along more personal lines. His paintings became more intimate, less naturalistic, and darker in tonality. Gradually he developed an idiosyncratic manner characterized by thick, uneven brushwork, attention to surface pattern, and a somber, melancholic mood. A frequent motif was the lacy silhouette of dark tree branches against a moonlit sky.
Such works, when they sold at all, did not bring much money. Unable to pay rent regularly, Blakelock was repeatedly forced to move his large family from home to home in northern New Jersey, Brooklyn, and Harlem. Although friends tried to help by buying and selling his works in periods of particular distress, the artist, who was known for his impractical nature, had difficulty managing his finances. In 1891 a disappointing encounter with a patron led to a mental breakdown and a short hospitalization. Over the next few years, Blakelock's behavior became increasingly eccentric, and after another difficult interaction with a collector in 1899, he again broke down. Diagnosed with "dementia praecox," or paranoid schizophrenia, he spent most of the rest of his life in the Middletown (New York) State Hospital for the Insane.
Although Blakelock was to live for another two decades, the course of his growing reputation was now out of his hands, as were the profits which resulted from the booming market for his work. Almost as soon as he was institutionalized, his paintings began to mount in value. Speculators quickly bought up the available stock, and the first group of what was to be an unusually large number of Blakelock forgeries appeared. Twice, in 1913 and 1916, his pictures sold for record American prices. News of these sales prompted a great deal of popular interest and belated professional recognition. His election as an associate, and then full member of the National Academy, for example, followed closely on the heels of these two record-breaking sales. While his family languished in poverty, Blakelock became perhaps the best-known artist in the United States, the subject of several important one-man exhibitions.
In 1916 a woman who went by the alias of Mrs. Van Rensselaer Adams and who is now known to have been acting in her own financial interests, established a benevolent fund for the artist and obtained legal guardianship of him. Denying him access to his family, she temporarily removed him from the mental institution on several occasions, apparently hoping he would produce valuable paintings. Aged and infirm, Blakelock died in her custody near Elizabethtown, New York, in 1919. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Goodrich, Lloyd. Ralph Albert Blakelock Centenary Exhibition. Exh. cat. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1947.
The Enigma of Ralph A. Blakelock, 1847-1919. Exh. cat. The Art Galleries, University of California, Santa Barbara; California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco; Phoenix Art Museum; The Heckscher Museum, Huntington, NY. Santa Barbara, 1969.
Geske, Norman A. Ralph Albert Blakelock, 1847-1919. Exh. cat. Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska, Lincoln; New Jersey State Museum, Trenton. Lincoln, 1975.
Evans, Dorinda. "Art and Deception: Ralph Blakelock and His Guardian." American Art Journal 19 (No. 1, 1989): 39-50.
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 40-41.