The Unknown Night: The Genius and Madness of R.A. Blakelock, An American Painter, by Glyn Vincent. New York: Grove Press. 361 pages. $27.50. BUY NOW


Lloyd Goodrich's brief biography of Ralph Albert Blakelock (1847ñ1919), written on the occasion of a centenary exhibition of the artist's work at the Whitney Museum in 1947, concludes that his subject had lived "one of the most tragic artist's lives ever recorded." Blakelock spent the last twenty years of his life in mental institutions, while his wife and large familyónine children, one of whom died in infancyólived in abject poverty. Meanwhile, his work had a life of its own. It had not been entirely ignored before his confinement, but his had been the hardscrabble existence of a marginal painter, peddling the moony landscapes on which his reputation rested for grudging and paltry sums from graceless collectors. In 1916, though, Blakelock's Brook by Moonlight, 1890ñ91, was bought for twenty thousand dollarsóthe highest price yet paid for a work by a living American artist. Still insane, Blakelock suddenly became the most celebrated American artist of his time. That same year, Mrs. Blakelock was living in the Catskills with her youngest son, Douglas, who supported his mother by cutting ice in the winter. Perhaps not surprisingly, the crux of Blakelock's insanity was money: He believed himself immeasurably rich. "The Unknown Night" refers to the state of his displaced mind.

Here is an anecdote that both penetrates and reveals that darkness:

When the collector William T. Cresmer visited him in the summer of 1916, the artist talked clearly and interestingly about his work; only in discussing money did he become irrational. The Treasury Department in Washington, he said, was constantly asking for his help. Out of his pocket he pulled what looked like a roll of bills, and gave three of them to his visitor, "Take this back to Chicago," he said. "Don't spend it, but live off the interest." The bills . . . are paintings of the size, shape and color of paper currency. At first glance they look like money, but actually they are landscapes painted to resemble it. One of them bears the figure $1,000,000.00.

I was once lucky enough to exchange a real five-dollar bill for a painted one. The owner was a West Side used-furniture dealer who didn't know his American art history. The artist was N.A. Brooks, who like his model, William Harnett, only painted worn bills in low denominationsótoo low to make it worth anyone's while to soak off the paint. The federal agents who eventually arrested Harnett were somehow unable to realize that that it was more profitable for him to sell his bills as art than to attempt to pass them off as genuine. The same held true for contemporary artist J.S.G. Boggs, who not long ago stood trial in London for drawing obviously artistic banknotes bearing the Queen's picture. Boggs's legal troubles implied that the injunction against depicting money was a version of the Second Commandment, since no one could be taken in by one of his pieces. Try to imagine what it would be like to believe that Blakelock's little landscapes were actual currency, and you will have a vivid sense of the world he believed real. As Glyn Vincent observes, Blakelock might have said, like Hamlet, "I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is south I know a hawk from a handsaw."


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