Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

The Unknown Night

The Genius and Madness of R. A. Blakelock, an American Painter

by Glyn Vincent

“The best book yet written about this neglected and fascinating American painter. . . . Vincent does an excellent job of providing context for the events of Blakelock’s life, making this dire chronicle of originality, treachery and suffering come alive. . . . Vincent has succeeded in putting together a stunning picture of the art market’s cruel failure to care for the welfare of artists.” –Gail Levin, The New York Times Book Review

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 384
  • Publication Date January 20, 2004
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4064-7
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $15.00

About The Book

Unprecedented in its comprehensiveness and authority, The Unknown Night chronicles the life, times, and madness of one of America’s most celebrated and exploited painters, whose brooding, hallucinogenic landscapes anticipated abstract expressionism by more than half a century.

In the early 1900s Ralph Blakelock’s mysterious paintings were as sought after as the works of such American masters as Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent. In 1916, his haunting landscape, Brook by Moonlight was sold at auction for $20,000, a record price for a painting by a living American artist. The sale, his second record price in three years, made him famous. The newspapers called him America’s greatest artist; thousands flocked to exhibitions of his work. Yet at the time of his triumph, Blakelock had spent fifteen years confined years in a psychiatric hospital in upstate New York while his wife and children lived in poverty. Released from the asylum, Blakelock fell into the dubious care of an eccentric adventuress, Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams, who kept him a virtual prisoner while siphoning off the profits of his success, entangling the artist in one of the most heartless scams of the century.

This is the first complete biography of Blakelock’s dramatic life (1847-1919), spanning a tumultuous period of American history. With unfaltering historical detective work, Glyn Vincent unearths the facts of Blakelock’s childhood in Greenwich Village; his youthful journeys among the Sioux and Uinta Indians, his mystical leanings, and the years in which he struggled to support his family by peddling his canvases door-to-door and playing piano in vaudeville theaters. He explores the nature of Blakelock’s mental illness and his radical shift away from the Hudson River School of art toward a more expressive style of painting that, ultimately, defined Blakelock’s true place in the pantheon of American art.

This critically acclaimed biography chronicles the life, times, and madness of one of America’s most celebrated and exploited painters, whose brooding, hallucinogenic landscapes anticipated abstract expressionism by more than half a century. The Unknown Night vividly portrays New York in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a city of artists’ studios and spiritualists’ salons, shantytowns and millionaires’ mansions, a city where the line between obscurity and adulation was treacherously thin.


“The best book yet written about this neglected and fascinating American painter. . . . Vincent does an excellent job of providing context for the events of Blakelock’s life, making this dire chronicle of originality, treachery and suffering come alive. . . . Vincent has succeeded in putting together a stunning picture of the art market’s cruel failure to care for the welfare of artists.” –Gail Levin, The New York Times Book Review

“Earnestly written. . . . [Blakelock’s] landscapes of the 1880s were a rebellion against the ‘slavery” of the academic tradition and the American insistence on anecdote and detail. . . . [His] initial obscurity, followed by the notoriety of his final years, says a good deal about art, money and reputation in America.” –John Loughery, The Washington Post

“Vincent succeeds admirably, giving weight and complexity to his subject’s life, examining the artistic and intellectual influences on his work, and tracing the emergence of his own original style. . . . Vincent portrays Blakelock as neither an insider or an outsider but as an adventurer in his life and his art, as one who traveled in disparate worlds.” –Judith Maas, The Boston Globe

“Thoroughly engaging. . . . Not only is Vincent’s volume the first fully researched account of Blakelock’s fascinating life, it’s also an intriguing portrait of the nascent American art world of the late 19th and early 20th century: the paralyzing control a few institutions such as the National Academy of Design held over new developments, the hucksterism of the art market . . . and the fierce struggle American artists went through to build an identity separate from that of European artists. . . . A wholly compelling read: a page-turning story about a quintessentially American artist and his world.” –Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Austin American-Statesman

The Unknown Night reveals the captivating life and times of one of America’s most innocvative artist from this childhood in a crowded New York City tenement to his somewhat mysterious death.” –Sarah Gianelli, Portland Oregonian

“[A] sad but fascinating story. . . . Vincent provides a portrait not only of the people at the heart of [his] story, but also the time in which they lived. From studios and salons to mansions and asylums, The Unknown Night sheds light on a period in American history that seems distant in its details, yet contemporary in its attitudes about artists, art and celebrity.” –S.L. Berry, The Indianapolis Star

“With the vividness of a novel. . . . Vincent’s compelling biography helps to ensure that this pioneering artist will retain the place he earned in the annals of American art. . . . Besides providing a gripping drama set in a vanished world, Vincent thoroughly chronicles Blakelock’s often undated paintings and analyzes his evolving subject matter and technique.” –Bonnie Barrett Stretch, ARTnews

“An exceedingly readable book. Vincent’s descriptions of old New York are marvelous . . . and the narrative of Blakelock’s travels among the Indians in the lost world of the West is compelling. . . . This tale of madness, greed, fame, and sorrow is a cautionary account for those who look to art for happiness.” –Arthur C. Danto, Bookforum

“Spellbinding. . . . Compellingly and empathetically told, this chronicle is a must for art lovers and anyone with a passion for turn-of-the-century history and culture. . . . Blakelock’s tragic life story has all the trappings of a Victorian mystery: kidnapping, madness, seduction, forgery and betrayal.” –Publishers Weekly

“A probing, top-flight study of Ralph Albert Blakelock’s difficult life (1847-1919) and visionary art, from playwright and art journalist Vincent. The ups and downs of Blakelock’s career were as radical as the painting he brought to the American art scene in the late 19th century.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“An arresting and ultimately haunting portrait of an intrepid and besieged artist of moonlight and lost worlds. . . . Vincent brilliantly relates the startling story of America’s ‘most expressive an idiosyncratic” nineteenth-century painter with the suspense and metaphorical richness of fiction, eloquently defining the particular vision and magic of Blakelock’s highly charged landscapes and sensitively parsing the pathos of his brave struggles as an outsider in the clubby New York art world, and, more dauntingly, with the pernicious demon of schizophrenia.” –Donna Seaman, Booklist (starred review)

“Fascinating. . . . [and] compellingly told. . . . Vincent’s account of Blakelock’s early hardships in New York City are a template for what it’s like to be an unrecognized, struggling artist anytime, anywhere, and the descriptions of the swindlers who exploited his late-won fame are subtly terrifying portraits of greed and dishonesty.” –Douglas F. Smith, Library Journal

“Vivid and astonishing vignettes . . . [Blakelock is] perhaps the most important American painter you have ever heard of.” –Molly Sackler, Bookweb.org

“This seductive book is elegant in its art historical musings and touchingly romantic in its biographical narrative: the author’s affection for his subject is evident throughout. The incredibly weird story–of genius, intrigue, insanity, and mystery–is as fast-paced as an Agatha Christie novel, but too mad to be invented and completely unsettling by dint of its reality.” –Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon

“An exceptionally well-researched and admirably written account of one of the most poetic stories in the history of American art.” –Caleb Carr, author of The Alienist

“Glyn Vincent explores quintessential themes of American optimism and despair: mysticism vies with the market, true artistry is bitterly shadowed by con-artistry, and genius ricochets into madness. Vincent’s passion for detail is deftly balanced by his respect for the fundamental mystery of Blakelock’s originality.” –Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families

“This is a mesmerizing account of one of the most radical and innovative artists in the history of American painting. Beyond that, it is an informative and well-balanced depiction of life in this country, from the sophisticated art world then flourishing in New York to our beautiful western wilderness, in the thrilling epoch spanned by Blakelock’s lifetime.” –Nicholas Fox Weber, author of Balthus


Chapter One: News

One damp April morning in 1916, Harrison Smith, a young reporter for the New York Tribune, left the Tribune Building on Nassau Street in a hurry. Dodging the crowds on the narrow sidewalks of lower Manhattan he headed for the subway kiosk on Park Row. He was on his way uptown to catch the Hudson Tubes to the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. In Jersey City he would board another train for Middletown, New York. It wasn’t an obvious destination to chase down a story. In fact, senior reporters, who routinely got their names on the front page, hardly left the office at all. They were too busy writing up the dispatches that arrived from all over the world via telegraph, telephone, and that new noisy mechanical angel the aeroplane, which appeared like a gnat against the blustery American sky. There was plenty of news. German zeppelins were raining bombs on the English coast. The French were defending Verdun. Pancho Villa was hiding out from the American Tenth Cavalry in the rocky gulches of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Smith, on the other hand, faced a two-hour trip on a hard bench seat in a drafty carriage with a view of bare trees and muddy farm fields. He was on his way to interview an American artist, Ralph Albert Blakelock, who for the past fifteen years had been incarcerated, and largely forgotten, in an asylum in Middletown.

Smith later claimed that he personally rediscovered Blakelock. In fact, he was heading to Middletown at the suggestion of Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams, a young woman he had found waiting outside the city editor’s office early that very morning. Adams was a well-coifed vamp-attractive, with dark hair and “glittering” black eyes-who passed herself off as a philanthropist. She had already tipped off the Tribune‘s competitors to the Blakelock story. In fact, by the time Smith got on the train that day both the New York Times and New York’s largest paper, Joseph Pulitzer’s World, had already run a series of prominent articles on Blakelock. Far from being the first on the scene, Smith was actually playing catch-up. Two weeks before, a lifetime in the fiercely competitive world of New York’s battling dailies, the World, at Beatrice Adams’s bidding, had sent an editor up to the asylum to do a front-page story on the artist who was being bandied about in the papers as “America’s greatest painter.”

Blakelock, once a prominent New York artist, had been committed first to the Long Island State Hospital in Flatbush in 1899. He was transferred to the more isolated hinterlands of Middletown in 1901. Blakelock, the man, was soon forgotten. Yet almost as soon as the doors closed behind him Blakelock’s reputation redoubled, as did the market for his work. Considered on a par with such American masters as Whistler, Sargent, Inness, Homer, and Ryder, the paintings Blakelock had sold in hard times for $25 or $30 were being sold by dealers and collectors for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars (paying more than a thousand dollars for a painting was considered wildly extravagant at the time). There was such a demand for Blakelocks that the New York Evening Post noted in 1903 that “every exhibition or sale has one or more of his [Blakelock’s] work, and no collection, however small, is thought to be complete without a canvas or two by him.” In particular demand were Blakelock’s luminous moonlights, which, well known among the cognoscenti, had achieved a legendary status among collectors and artists. By 1913, a Blakelock moonlight, now in the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., sold for a record auction price of $13,900. The sale caused quite a stir. That same year, Blakelock was finally elected an associate academician at the National Academy of Design. Soon after, Elliott Daingerfield, a fellow artist, published a biography of Blakelock, and an important exhibition of Blakelock, Inness, and Wyant was held in Chicago, further solidifying their reputation as America’s top three landscape painters. Despite his fame in the art world, Blakelock remained sequestered in Middletown, unheralded and penniless. He passed his time painting small impressionistic landscapes on cigar box lids that no one, except for certain members of the staff, took any notice of.

It wasn’t until 1916, fifteen years after his incarceration in Middletown, that Blakelock’s anonymity was shattered. The extraordinary sale on February 22, 1916, of Brook by Moonlight-a brooding canvas in the Romantic style, completed about 1890-set a second record price. The moonlight was auctioned along with the rest of the famous art collection of the bankrupt silk mill tycoon Catholina Lambert. The stubby, self-made Yorkshireman had built a three-story art gallery in his castle-dubbed Balmoral by William Carlos Williams-on the cliffs overlooking Paterson, New Jersey, to show off his collection. Estimated to be worth more than $1 million, it included artists from Botticelli to Monet. But it was Blakelock’s four-by-six-foot moonlight that was the most talked about during the presale exhibition. One newspaper review of the exhibit observed:

Although higher prices may be obtained for the Titian, the Andrea del Sarto, the Rembrandt, the Botticelli and other of the old masters, undoubtedly the most interesting picture in the collection is the marvellous Moonlight by the American, R. A. Blakelock.

As it turned out, the top price on February 22 went to Blakelock. It has been suggested that the record-high prices paid for Blakelock paintings at this time were brought on by the public “hysteria” about the artist. The truth is that at the time of the sale, Blakelock, in Middletown, was still being ignored by the press, and the sensationalist stories about him didn’t begin to circulate until after his record-setting sales. Indeed, one of the strangely overlooked facts about Blakelock’s career is that the popularity of his moonlights began not in 1916 but decades before, when he had received enthusiastic praise for his first exhibited monumental moonlight, A Waterfall, Moonlight, in 1886.

Blakelock’s moonlights often left critics breathless and somewhat inarticulate. The paintings, they said, had a mystical or spiritual presence, a color-saturated luminosity that was difficult to describe with words. They were repeatedly called “poetic” or “lyrical.” Certainly, there was a dramatic, romantic sentiment attached to some of Blakelock’s more popular moonlight compositions that today appears dated, but even these paintings have a tenebrous, chiaroscuro veil that evokes something other, something beyond. In Brook by Moonlight, the viewer is sequestered in a secret dark place on the bank of a forest stream. Overhead a large tree leans precipitously from the opposite steep bank, its massive canopy of lacy foliage splintering the lambent glow of the moon. It’s a dreamy landscape, naturalistically depicted but entirely imaginary in setting. Blakelock was not so much duplicating a place as he was an experience, a state of consciousness. It was as if the viewer himself were lying on the bank of a stream under the summer moonlight, with the trees rustling above and the vast lonely universe all around.

The dark, melancholy aspect of Blakelock’s painting evidently appealed to the tycoon Lambert, who had a tragic personal history of his own. Not that that made him any more generous when he acquired the painting in 1891. He bought the painting either early that year when Blakelock, in a fragile state of mind, was playing the piano on the vaudeville circuit in Paterson or-there are several different stories-later that summer when Biakelock was resting on Lambert’s estate in Pennsylvania after his first breakdown. Blakelock had, in any event, asked for at least one thousand dollars for the canvas and only reluctantly accepted Lambert’s final offer of six hundred dollars.

In the auction in the Plaza Hotel ballroom on February 22, the first bid after the olive-green curtains were swept aside to reveal the moonlight was $14,000. In four minutes, amid considerable applause, it was sold to the Toledo Museum for $20,000-a record in 1916 for the sale at auction of work by a living American painter. The suave auctioneer, Thomas E. Kirby, obviously pleased, called Brook by Moonlight the “finest work ever done by an American artist.”

Such high-flown praise was, some thought, exaggerated. Even so, most critics agreed that there was no other nineteenth-century American painter quite as original as Blakelock. He had done more than any other artist, with the possible exception of Albert Pinkham Ryder-whom he frequently was compared to-to wrest American landscape painting from its pastoral foundations. In Blakelock’s hands, an art that was once considered the reflection of an “objective” place became an expression of subconscious feelings. “Blakelock was by nature a dreamer,” wrote the critic Raymond Wyer in 1916. “To call him a landscape painter is incorrect. No artist has used the landscape as means to an end more than he.”

Indeed, Blakelock’s radical paintings of the 1880s and 1890s took self-expression into an imaginary realm that had as much in common with the abstract expressionist ideas of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Mark Rothko in the mid-twentieth century as it did with the painters of his own time. “It goes, in certain directions, beyond anything produced by any other American,” The Nation commented in 1916 on the precocious nature of Blakelock’s work. Contrasting his paintings to the “more objective” work of Homer, Wyant, and Inness, The Nation opined that Blakelock “has occupied a field which has scarcely been touched by any of these … Blakelock goes furthest in his freedom from conscious premeditation and his complete triumph over the limitations of his medium.”

There was considerable pride in the many articles that followed up the Brook by Moonlight sale that an American work brought such a high price (a Pierre-Auguste Renoir sold for only $16,000). It was noted, too, that the total for the eleven Blakelocks in the sale, more than $46,000, was well above those achieved by the Botticellis, the Rembrandts, the Renoirs, the Monets, the Pissarros, and the rest. In a country whose art market had been dominated for more than a century by European paintings, this was considered quite a coup.

No sooner had Brook by Moonlight arrived at the Toledo Museum than it was packed up and shipped back to New York to be shown at an exhibit of Blakelock’s paintings being held at the Reinhardt Galleries on Fifth Avenue. The exhibit opened to great fanfare on April 3, 1916. It had been organized as part of a concerted effort to gain the release of Blakelock from the asylum and provide a fund to support the impoverished artist and his family. Photographs of Blakelock, his paintings, and Mrs. Adams, the pretty, photogenic philanthropist who had “rescued” the painter from anonymity, had been featured in many of the city’s papers. The Blakelock story seemed to have been more than adequately covered. Still, Harrison Smith, who claimed to have “a scent for a front-page story,” was convinced that the artist’s impending visit to the city would grab even grander headlines. About this Smith was right. The public’s curiosity for Blakelock was to prove insatiable. The discovery of a destitute mad genius whose mysterious paintings had millionaires bidding fortunes was the kind of Horatio Alger myth Americans loved. Blakelock was fast becoming an American success story, a tragedy averted, a calamitous life with a happy ending. At least it seemed so.

As the train slowly puffed its way through the Ramapo hills, Smith had more than two hours to mull over what he had learned about Blakelock. The commonly known, or rather believed known, facts were few. Blakelock was born in New York in 1847, the son of a physician. His father wanted him to study medicine, but Blakelock’s passion was for music and art. “So repugnant was the thought of the career of a physician,” one early biographical article stated about Biakelock, “that he resolved, whatever might be the cost, to become his own master, and unaided, to seek fame with brush and palette.” Blakelock was ambitious, no doubt about that. He was a small wisp of a man who moved quickly, taking the stairs two at a time even in his sixties. His long fine hands were like a leprechaun’s, Smith later wrote, and they dashed through the air as he spoke. He was ethereal in a down-to-earth sort of way. He mostly wrote home asking for art materials, but he was also quite concerned about getting new tailored clothes, his cigars and cigarettes. He was not a heavy drinker, but he mentioned bouts of drinking wine-real or imagined-to the staff. At the hospital, Blakelock never missed an “entertainment.” He was not at all averse to playing a popular tune on the piano. His tastes were democratic; he was as happy with vaudeville as with opera, a reader of Longfellow, one suspects, more often than of Virgil.

Blakelock was said to be a pleasant companion, but he was hardly a cosmopolitan or social person, and he was far too esoteric and sensitive to be a truly gregarious man. He was moody, and at the hospital he often kept to himself, spending many hours with his nose buried in a newspaper or a book. Sometimes he went to the piano to play-insofar as he could-more serious music like Beethoven and Wagner. He was a devotee of the arcane spiritual writings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a mystic whose unorthodox interpretation of Christianity was popular among nineteenth-century intellectuals and spiritualists. Blakelock’s favorite activity was to be outside alone, close to nature, deep in the woods by some babbling brook. Indeed, most of his early career was spent tramping through the forests of New England and exploring the deep wildernesses out west. Several newspapers had gotten hold of a picture of him as a young adventurer, his hair swept back, his handsome, aristocratic face held high, his eyes beaming with idealism.

If time had allowed, Smith might also have found in the Tribune archives references to Elliott Daingerfield’s brief 1914 biography of Blakelock. In it Daingerfield stressed that Blakelock was a self-taught artist who, he stated, had learned about color on his journeys west among the American Indians. “When the barbaric depth of their color, the richness and plenitude of reds and yellows, the strength and brilliancy of light awakened his vision,” Daingerfield wrote, “his own soul, an untamed one, responded to no conventional law; these children of the forests and plain appealed to his deepest instincts.”

Many writers mentioned Blakelock’s childlike, impractical personality. Those who knew him attested to his “unswerving convictions” and his devotion to art. There were those who considered his idealism “lofty.”

©2003 by Glyn Vincent. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.