The Most Forged Artist in America

I’ll admit to having always had a bit of a fascination with forgeries. I’ve felt the same way about impersonators, too, and I know my thinking is quite naive here, but even as a child I wondered about “Elvis impersonators” — the question being, “If they sound like Elvis, why aren’t they famous in their own right?”

And so it is with art forgers. If they have the talent to paint like an old master or a famous artist from another school, why are they forging art? Why aren’t they painting their own works?  Again, I suppose the question is somewhat naive, and maybe it goes to show that talent alone doesn’t account for success or fame.

Over the last few weeks, as you know, I’ve been studying tonalism and learning about the artists who were a part of this beautiful movement in American landscape art. I’ve fallen in love with George Inness, flirted with a few of his friends from the French Barbizon school of art, and I’ve gotten to know several other American artists who embraced the qualities of tonalism — poetic, evocative paintings of the landscape that show not merely the topography of a scene, but the thoughts and feelings of the artist.

One such artist was Ralph Albert Blakelock. I had never heard this man’s name before. I quickly began browsing around to learn about his art and about his approach toward landscape painting. While I always enjoy reading about the lives of artists whose work I admire, I found myself quite saddened by all I learned about Blakelock.

His was not a happy life, despite the considerable success he achieved. Blakelock’s father was a physician, and for a time he followed that path as well, studying at a college in New York. After the third term, however, he left school and — on his own — went out west to explore America.

I feel a connection to this man as he was also a self-taught artist. I admire his adventurous spirit, his trial-and-error methods of teaching himself to paint. He spent time with the Native Americans, filled sketchbooks and notebooks with drawings, thoughts, feelings, and became quite competent as a landscape artist.

He married, fathered nine children, and made a name for himself in the world of art where he was heralded as a genius. In business, however, Blakelock was not successful. The pressures of having a large family to support weighed heavily upon him. Time and again he sold his works at ridiculously low prices simply to keep food on the table.

In his forties, he suffered a mental break-down. From Wikipedia:

His depression manifested in schizophrenic delusions in which he believed himself immensely wealthy – perhaps a compensation for his long struggle to provide for his family. In 1899, he suffered his final breakdown and spent almost the entire remaining twenty years of his life in mental institutions.

Almost as soon as Blakelock went into the first psychiatric hospital, his works began to receive recognition. Within a few years the paintings he had once sold for next to nothing were resold for several thousand dollars. In 1916, Blakelock was made an Academician of the National Academy of Design.

Meanwhile, Blakelock languished in the mental asylum of Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital, whose administration and staff were unaware of his fame as an artist, and who viewed his belief that his paintings were in major museums as one more sign of his illness. While confined he continued to paint in ink, painting on the backs of cardboard and various supports, substituting bark and his own hair for brushes.

In 1916, his landscape “Moonlight” was sold for $20,000.00 a record price at that time.

The painting, above, may be the one sold for $20,000.00, although I haven’t yet been able to verify this. Blakelock painted several moonlight scenes. Here is another:

There is, however, more to the story, and it’s not a happy one. Again, from Wikipedia:

It was this impressive price that captured the imagination of Sadie Filbert, who had reinvented herself as the socially prominent Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams so that she could swindle the wealthy by persuading them to donate to charitable causes that would, in fact, serve to enrich herself. She founded and milked the Blakelock Fund, which was supposed to support the impecunious artist and his needy brood.

She informed Harrison Smith, then a young reporter with the New York Tribune, of Blakelock’s whereabouts, and he went to see Blakelock in the asylum. He found him largely lucid, although under the delusion that an imagined “diamond of the Emperor of Brazil” had been stolen from him. Smith explained to the asylum director who Blakelock was, and managed to arrange to bring Blakelock and the director to Manhattan, where a major gallery retrospective of Blakelock’s work was taking place. Blakelock was awed by the changes in the city in the two decades since he had last seen it, and thrilled to see the recognition his work had received. Smith scored himself a major news story. (In a 1945 account, Smith added that Blakelock had quietly informed him that several of the paintings were forgeries, but Smith chose not to put that in his story because of the question of how far he could rely on the word of the less than fully sane Blakelock.) These events led to Blakelock’s release from the asylum, in the “care” of Sadie Filbert, alias Beatrice Van Rensselaer Adams, who milked him for all he was worth.

As his paintings grew in popularity, Blakelock found his works being imitated by others, and at one point he was said to be probably “the most forged artist in America.” He died at the age of 71.

Another reason why I feel a strong connection to Blakelock is because he was also a musician, He drew inspiration from music. Being a pianist and having performed Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata many times, of course I’m drawn to this painting by Blakelock, titlted Moonlight Sonata.

I love so much about these beautiful nocturnal paintings. I wish Blakelock’s life could have been happier and easier. His talent is undeniable, and how unfortunate that so many people took advantage of this man throughout his life.

Now that I’ve gotten to know Blakelock and his art, I want to learn all that I can, perhaps someday visit galleries or museums that display his art, and pay tribute to him in my works. He was truly a remarkable artist.

10 Comments

    1. Yes, his life story was very interesting — and so sad! I want to see more of his art. After this pandemic is over, I hope my husband and I can travel a bit and visit art museums across the country. I’m making notes now of whose paintings are at which museums!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, it is, especially now that I’m learning about specific artists. I can find out where certain paintings are, and hopefully plan my museum trips around those artworks.

        Liked by 1 person

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