Sheldon Museum of Art


Date of this Version



Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, University of Nebraska- Lincoln. September 25, 2008 through January 4, 2009.


All images are copyright by the original artists. Publication copyright 2009 The Regents of the University of Nebraska


Understanding the work of nineteenth-century American painter Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847-1919) has proven elusive despite several exhibitions and publications about his life and art. As Sheldon Director Emeritus, author, and founder of the Nebraska Blakelock Inventory Project Norman Geske observes, "Essentially self-taught, Blakelock proceeded with an imagination that was singularly free of any allegiance to established procedures, allowing him ... to address subjects as diverse as Jamaica, upper Manhattan Island, and the ocean shore - to find new solutions to differing pictorial problems. In some instances, it is clear he was cognizant of stylistic innovations in the higher artistic community. At other times it seems his solutions were strikingly in advance of the standard practice of the time." Blakelock's tragic mental illness and the numerous forgeries produced in his style have further obscured the broader artistic accomplishments his critics have largely overlooked.

The Unknown Blakelock expands our view of the artist's achievement and confirms his modernist vision by identifying specific examples that enlarge our sense of the breadth and variety of his life's work. While the exhibition includes his signature moonlight scenes and Indian encampments, its focus is on lesser-known subjects that may have motivated Blakelock to venture beyond traditional norms and experiment with original methods of painting.

Born in New York City in 1847, the only child of a well-to-do family, Blakelock attended the Free Academy of New York (now City College) in 1864 to prepare for a career in medicine, but grew disillusioned with his course work and left before completing his degree. He found a mentor in his uncle, James A. Johnson, a selftaught artist and friend of Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church. In 1865 he joined Johnson at his uncle's new summer home in Vermont for intensive study. Blakelock's diligence led to his being included in an 1867 exhibition at the National Academy of Design _ the first of seven successive acceptances. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he did not tour or study in Europe. Exposure to European art and, according to Geske, interest in the French Barbizon School came to him secondhand. Blakelock chose to explore the American west instead. Numerous drawings and sketches attest to the excitement and sense of adventure he found there, undergoing experiences that would influence much of his later work. In 1875 Blakelock married Cora Rebecca Bailey and soon after fell into financial difficulties. They had nine children together, one of whom died in infancy. Shortly after his youngest child's birth in 1899, Blakelock was hospitalized for what is believed to have been late onset schizophrenia. Although continuing to paint, he was institutionalized for much of the rest of his life.