In our on-going series and effort to bring to light the wonderful artists of our time who dealt with the predicament of schizophrenia, we will now talk about the amazing painter of the romanticist style named Ralph Albert Blakelock. Undergoing no real formal training, Blakelock was a self-taught painter and landscape artist using the method of trial and error to gain his skill at the craft. The highlight of his career was having one of his paintings sold at a record breaking price for any currently living American painter. Let us learn more about his life, work, and battle with schizophrenia.
The Life of Ralph Albert Blakelock
This gentleman was born in New York City on October 15th, 1847 (d. August 9, 1919) to a father who worked as a medical physician. Like many of us, young Ralph decided to be like his father and enrolled in studies at what is now known as City College in New York in 1864. This did not work out for him for whatever reason, and he discontinued his formal education after his third semester.
Taking a break from education, he traveled for several years throughout the Western United States, Mexico, and Central America by himself, however spending much time with settlers and Native Americans during his adventures. It was at this time that he began to practice his art by starting with landscapes and scenes from the lives of the Native Americans. He kept personal journals about his experiences and drew from these the inspiration needed to paint these pictures. These journals and artworks were placed on display at the National Academy of Design with his very own exhibition. Upon his success, he eventually married in 1877 to Cora Bailey and fathered nine children. Despite his critical success in the art world, he found it quite difficult to financially support his wife and kids.
The Beginnings of Blakelock’s Schizophrenia
During this time of financial upheaval, Ralph Albert Blakelock began selling his paintings for much less money than they were being valued at. As we all know, this only further drives the prices down as demand sinks as well. He did what he felt he must to give his family what they deserved, but this only further drove him into sadness as it diminished his career as an artist.
As the story is told, upon the birth of his last child, he felt the added pressure of supporting another loved one and offered to sell a painting to an interested collector for the price of one-thousand dollars, which was already a low price. The collector countered with a price that could be considered insulting and Blakelock refused. Returning home, he entered into a bickering fight with his wife over finances that resulted in his return to the collector to complete the sale. This final insult to his career frustrated the man. He felt defeated and depressed. This depression was compounded by his other failed business ventures and he suffered an acute psychotic break. The tale goes that he subsequently ripped up the cash he obtained from the sale of this painting and further deteriorated into a deeper state of mental and physical frailty.
Blakelock’s Schizophrenia and Other Symptoms
It can be said that Ralph Blakelock’s first true mental breakdown occurred in 1891 as the depth of his depression began featuring symptoms related to schizophrenia, specifically delusions. In an attempt to protect itself, his mind began manifesting the belief that he was indeed a very wealthy man, living an affluent lifestyle and providing only the best for his family. Not much is known about this period of time, but we do know that in 1899 the acuity of his symptoms increased and he ultimately ended up living the remainder of his life in various hospitals and psychiatric institutions, which amounted to twenty years more years of serious illness.
As life seems to do for all of the greats, he did not gain a large-scale recognition while he was unable to enjoy it and scale his operation. The paintings that he was previously underselling in order to keep his family fed began to be resold for many times the price that he allowed them to be purchased at. Others began to profit from his work instead of himself, but the National Academy of Design did name him an Academician!
As he attempted to explain to the staff and medical practitioners at the Middletown State Homeopathic Insane Asylum that he was a widely regarded master painter of increasing fame, they only believed it to be further delusion arising from his sickness. His continued study of art was done through the medium of ink on cardboard and other materials available around the hospital. He even used tree bark and his own hair to form his painting brushes.
The Record-Breaking Sale
It was around this time that a landscape painting of Blakelock’s called Moonlight was sold at an art auction for around $20,000, thereby placing Blakelock in a hall-of-fame of sorts, because this was the highest price fetched for a painting by an artist who was still alive. This inspired a thief of the name of Sadie Filbert to don a false persona and begin the Blakelock Fund, which was meant to collect donations from the wealthy in order to support Blakelock and his family. Of course, Filbert was only siphoning the money in order to make herself rich. She did manage to convince a report of the New York Tribune to attempt to (and successfully) removed Mr. Blakelock from his hospitalization long enough to visit the Manhattan gallery where a large retrospective of his work was being displayed.
Blakelock was lucid and stable, despite a few strange delusions he still carried, wand was able to finally celebrate his own success at one of his own gallery shows. Fortunately, due to the his reasonable behavior and the huge news story published about his life and work, he was released from the asylum under the care of Filbert. Unfortunately, she continued to collect money on his behalf and keep the wealth for herself. Blakelock did continue painting his life scenery and landscapes until he perished on August 9 of the year 1919 at the age of 71.
The Characteristics of Ralph Blakelock’s Artwork
Although Blakelock gained his style through his own methods of trial, error, scrapping, and restarting, he was early influenced by the school of the Hudson River painters. In time though, his own style arose which was far more personal, subjective, and intimate. He enjoyed painting scenes of wildlife, wilderness, and solitude, which may have offered a glimpse into his own psychological landscape. His paintings all offered a sense of magic and mysticism, often featuring the luminosity of the moon, the twilight of moonbeams, and nighttime scenes of mist. This was influenced by the style of the Barbizon school of art that focused on dark scenes of forests and fields.
Because of these wonderful works of art and the struggle Blakelock pursued financially and psychologically, we celebrate his life. He gained greatness despite his illness, and that gives us hope. He coped through his pursuit of painting, and for that reason we consider his a life in pursuit of schizophrenia art. Thank you, Mr. Blakelock!