THE UNKNOWN NIGHT

The Genius and Madness of

R.A. Blakelock, An American Painter

By Glyn Vincent

Grove. 362 pp. $27.50

Some artists are more interesting than their work, and, though we are often told otherwise by those who want to deny the importance of biography, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Artists can enrich our imaginative lives as much by their personae as by their tangible achievements. When they do both (e.g., Whistler or Wilde), so much the better. But the fact is that modern art has never been a matter solely of texts, images and critical hierarchies. Our cultural landscape has also been formed by an array of Bohemian resisters, tortured souls, monomaniacs and colorful lunatics. The very words "Greenwich Village" or "beat generation," for instance, tell a story of their own.

In The Unknown Night, playwright and journalist Glyn Vincent has written about an American painter, Ralph Blakelock (1847-1919), who was far better known in his own time than he is today, though examples of his expressionist landscapes are still to be found in museum collections. In most chronicles of American art, he is a respected but marginal figure, and the darkening, cracked condition of many of his canvases will forever preclude a Blakelock revival. I doubt he is mentioned in college art history classes today, and I couldn't name the dozen or so Blakelocks I've seen on my own museum travels. Yet Vincent makes a fair case for considering him as a man who has more in common with late 20th-century art practices than those of the 1880s, and whose initial obscurity, followed by the notoriety of his final years, says a good deal about art, money and reputation in America. The Blakelock persona, then, has to do with admirable obstinacy, a gothic-romantic sensibility in the age of realism, and unromantic poverty and pain.

Blakelock came of age in the 1860s, before his native New York City boasted a major museum and when art education itself was a catch-as-catch-can affair. Always drawn to the margins of American life, he painted the shanties of northern Manhattan, the dwindling tribes of Wyoming and Montana, and the less grandiose views of the West. No painter was less likely to win an important commission than Ralph Blakelock, who -- like Albert Pinkham Ryder or Joseph Cornell -- seems at times to have inhabited a world of his own making. He married and fathered a large family without a clue as to how he would support them or what it might take to build a career. He put his faith in the mystic Swedenborg and the power of oil on canvas.

The artist's early works were neither original nor memorable, but Blakelock was convinced that he would eventually transcend his influences. "The Hudson River style," as Vincent aptly points out, "never satisfied Blakelock's need for self-expression, his relish for paint, his mystic relationship with nature." His landscapes of the 1880s were a rebellion against the "slavery" of the academic tradition and the American insistence on anecdote and detail. Heavily textured, they drew on a brooding inward-looking inspiration as much as on external observation. They are more purely about light and color than most other paintings of the day, but without the ebullience that characterizes classic impressionism. They were also created without much thought of the marketplace or critical reaction. The cult following he developed proved undependable in the long run.

If Blakelock painted out of personal need and a wish to create a new kind of poetry in the visual arts, late 19th-century America was an inhospitable place for such a venture. The times called for narrative and refinement, not an aggressive proto-abstraction devoid of a human presence or an overt message. Americans wanted confidence and energy, not elegies to a lost Arcadia. The sense of being marginalized as he did his best work took its toll. Throughout the 1890s, Blakelock's efforts to sell his work became more desperate, eviction and debt became a way of life, and he was reduced to an angry, distracted state. He wandered the streets of New York in ever more fantastic clothes, a victim of wild fantasies and frightening rages.

Blakelock's interest in experimentation was his undoing as much as it is his claim on our attention today. He never wanted a signature style, and he wasn't about to churn out polished products that were too easily or immediately grasped. Painting for him was as much about the journey as the arrival. That approach marked him not only as an individual unplaceable in the traditional categories of his day (e.g., realist, impressionist, tonalist) but as a man with an incautious regard for the future. The pigments and varnishes he experimented with have had disastrous effects as the paintings age.

In 1899, on the day his ninth child was born, Blakelock was institutionalized. His descent into mental illness came, ironically, at the moment his artistic reputation was beginning a swift ascent. He died 20 years later, a longtime resident of a grim psychiatric hospital in upstate New York who, as his auction prices soared, had never benefited from the acclaim and huge sums he finally earned. In league with an unscrupulous doctor, a conniving young woman named Beatrice Adams had appeared on the scene and gained custody of the paintings and the painter. Blakelock's last two years are profoundly sad to read about; his darkest fears from an earlier time, of persecution and neglect, came true. Lauded in the press as the mad genius of American art, he remained poor and abused, kept from his wife and his growing public, a victim of Adams's physical and psychological tyranny. It would be hard to invent a story of such strangeness and injustice.

Content and style are not an even match in this brisk biography. The Unknown Night is earnestly written, never evocative enough in its description of the more mysterious paintings and at times far too casual in its tone. It hardly sounds like serious praise to say that a 19th-century visionary artist could "switch-hit from naturalism to abstraction from one day to the next." Vincent's research is admirable, though, and his labors have been in a good cause. If we are going to understand America in the Gilded Age, we need to know about more than the successes of John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. Most important, this book will send interested readers back to see the Blakelocks that remain worth viewing with a keener sense of their cost and their context. *

John Loughery is the author of "John Sloan: Painter and Rebel."

"Summer in East Orange, New Jersey" by R.A. Blakelock