Thursday, September 07, 2006

Blakelock: The Rest Of The Story

A lot more is now known about poor Mr. Blakelock, thanks to Glyn Vincent's 2002 biography, The Unknown Night: The Madness and Genius of R. A. Blakelock, An American Painter.

No mention is made of a trip to Chicago (to accompany his entry in the Columbian Exposition) -- but twenty years later, his long-suffering wife, Cora, traveled here to accompany an exhibit at the Young Gallery, as part of a fund-raising project to support herself and the seven children.

Her husband, the painter, had just spent twelve years in an insane asylum -- but during this period, the value of his work had skyrocketed -- George Bellows called him: "a genius who had made a strong impression not only upon american art, but upon the world" -- and he had become a media event -- possibly fueled by a popular fascination with the "crazy artist".

As one art critic wrote: "He is practically alone in the nervous vibration of his touch, that snaps and sparkles like an electric current."

Upon his release, an exhibit was held in New York that drew 2400 people on its final day (each paying $1 each). John McCormick, the famous Irish tenor, bought a painting for $4000 and in 1916, "Brook by Moonlight" sold at auction for $20,000 -- the most ever paid for an American painting.

This was a lot of money back when $20 bought a silk-lined suit and a 4-BR luxury apartment rented for $1200/year -- but all of the paintings now being sold belonged to someone else.

That's where the professional swindler, Beatrice Adams, stepped in to organize a charitable trust to care for the family -- soliciting the participation of the Astor Trust Company, the director of the Metropolitan Museum, the president of Nat'l Arts Club, and various other dignitaries like the leading sculptor, Daniel Chester French. Under their endorsement, the fund is estimated to have raised $35,000 -- very little of which the family would ever see.

This was truly an evil woman! She moved in with Blakelock, got power of attorney, put him to work making paintings, collected the proceeds, and lived like an heiress until he died a year later. (And she probably had the full cooperation of the art galleries who were also profiting from the deal.)

A sum of money was raised in Chicago, and Blakelock won first prize at another exhibit here of American paintings at the Hamilton club in 1917 -- where he was shown beside the modernists and impressionists of that day like Childe Hassam and Robert Henri.

It's my hunch that several P&C members, as leaders of the Chicago art community, were quite active in these events -- and hence Mrs. Blakelock's gratitude -- expressed by the framed palette that she gave us (though I wouldn't be surprised if several other benefactors also received such a gift.)

After his death, Blakelock joined Inness, Whistler, Sargent, Hassam, Chase, Homer, and Eakins in the typical museum surveys of late 19th C. American painting -- but was left out of the 1930 triumvirate selected by the Museum of Modern Art: Homer, Eakins, and Ryder.

But his reputation bounced back in the 40's -- with the elevation of the Abstract Expressionists. Albert Pinkham Ryder was Jackson Pollock's favorite painter -- but Franz Kline preferred Blakelock. As one critic, William Seitz, wrote, Ryder and Blakelock had much in common with the big boys of ABEX: they all value "experience over perfection, vitality over finish, the unknown over the known" -- and so he came to have a retropective at the Whitney in 1948.

It's not a pretty story -- but I guess the art world hasn't changed much in 100 years.

(further mention of Blakelock in the P&C minutes is found here )


Blogger Cobalt Blue said...

Nice follow up, Chris. I see that there is another Blakelock book out there--you can see it on Amazon.

I wonder if the widow Blakelock had a whole suitcase full of these old palettes. You will notice that the inscription doesn't say anything about the P&C--it's more of a generic inscription.

But then maybe I'm being too cynical.

September 08, 2006  
Blogger chris miller said...

After more reflection -- I'm not so sure that Mrs. Adams was all that evil -- or that Mr. Blakelock had it all that bad.

Adams takes a nutty old guy, fresh out of an insane asylum --- feeds him, beds him, gives him a place to paint and makes sure that he does.

It's true that she swindles his family -- but they're the ones who signed the papers that had him locked away for 12 years.

And it's also true that, under her care, he died a year later.

But there's many, many worse ways a crazy old artist could spend the last year of his life !

(BTW - Mrs. Adams walked away without a penny -- and she, herself, died 20 years later: poor, lonely, and crazy.)

September 08, 2006  
Blogger Cobalt Blue said...

More to come on this mystery, Chris--I've found a note from 1917 regarding Mrs. Blakelock.

September 20, 2006  

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