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02middletownMiddletown Homeopathic Hospital, Blakelock's Home from the 1890's to 1915

Ralph Albert Blakelock was born in New York City in 1847 the son of a physician. He graduated from the College of the City of New York, studied briefly at Cooper Union, and at the Free Academy of the City of New York. In 1867, he first exhibited at the National Academy of Design to which he was ultimately elected, after he was incarcerated for insanity. A contemporary of the Hudson River School, he chose his own unique path towards self-expression, starting with scenes of local New York City, from run down shanties to beach scenes on Far Rockaway. His true style was akin to Barbizon before Barbizon was popular in the United States, but unlike his French role models who populated their paintings with the peasant underclass, Blakelock’s apparitions of the land were the long vanished Indians, based upon fleeting glimpses from a trip out west from 1869-1872.

Upon his return he focused on nocturnal, misty scenes, especially moonlit landscapes, large oak trees, and Indian encampments. His work has a mysterious quality, which some associated with the type of music he habitually played on the piano during interludes from his painting. There are anecdotes from fellow tenants of Blakelock’s Tenth Street studio of the artist playing chords of music as if seeking out the tune to make the Indians in his paintings dance. Towards the end of the 19th century, his paintings became increasingly haunting, a reflection of his insanity aggravated by poverty and an inability to support his family of nine children. His romanticism, especially of escapism, was increasingly pronounced towards the end of his career.

In 1899, the artist had a mental breakdown and was committed to the state mental asylum in Middleton, New York. While institutionalized his work skyrocketed in value, and by 1916 was bringing world record numbers at auction. A year earlier in 1915 he was briefly released from the asylum to attend as an honored guest an exhibition of his earlier work. By then a celebrity, he was no longer the artist of his earlier abilities; consequently, his late works lack the quality of the earlier ones, and in between works of dubious in nature had entered the market place. He died on August 9, 1919.

For the last fifty years the late Dr. Norman Geske of the University of Nebraska attempted to sort this mess out, with the help of descendants’ of the art, by placing the art into categories of 1-4, with one being right and four being wrong.

Despite the current downturn by the market on dark 19th century paintings, art by this genuine New York city madman have returned in vogue and new 21st c. technology has been applied to properly vetting the works by the artist, as recent forensic science discovered a full set of handprints in paint on the back of a small Blakelock oil/panel, so now there is digital documentation of Blakelock’s full set of finger prints, potentially refining the vetting process regarding the work of this much imitated master. The artist also used an odd glaze which when aged imbues it with a unique colored hue visible only under the ultraviolet light.

Other notions to be corrected regarding the artist, include the photographic evidence here that either Blakelock was in the asylum before 1899 and continued to paint during his final institutional stretch. The topography of the Middletown area west of the hospital asylum just bears too much resemblance to the artists own work with a certain creek and lake populated with teepees in his paintings. 

04midrbimg2671Ralph Blakelock (1847-1919), Scene near the Middletown Hospital

05mid rbimg2671DSC 0119Middletown Insane Asylum

06midRalph Albert Blakelock MoonlightRalph Albert Blakelock (1847-1919), Moonlight

07midrablDSC 0105Monhagan Creek, Middletown

08midRBBMuseumMoonlightRABRalph Blakelock (1847-1919), Moonlight, Brooklyn Museum

09midRBBnDSC 0105Meadows near Monhagen Creek, Middletown, NY

12mid blakelock metRalph Blakelock (1847-1919), Indian Encampment, Metropoltian Museum. Painted in the late 1890's this may be the best evidence Blakelock had visited Middletown before the final stay of 1899-1915

13midblakelock met DSC 0027Monhagen Creek, Middletown, NY



15 790 blakelockRalph Blakelock (1847-1919), Indian Encampment. With Indian topographical names ringing the asylum, Blakelock might not have been as crazy as we thought

 03middletownArial View of the Middletown Asylum early 20th Century. Note Monhagen Lake in distance

By Robert Alexander Boyle

First published 5.6.2016


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