Ralph Albert Blakelock (American, 1847–1919),
A Mountain Stream
oil on canvas, 12 x 10 in.; 30.48 x 25.4 cm
Gift of Mrs. Harold Gifford, 1961.241
Born to fairly prosperous parents in New York City, Blakelock taught himself to paint. He derived his early style, in which he had had a little success by the time he was twenty, from the popular Hudson River School paintings of John F. Kensett and James Mcdougal Hart. Like many other American landscape artists of the time, Blakelock, in 1869 and again in 1872, traveled across the county in search of new vistas. He loved the solitary, nomadic life (although he married and fathered nine children), and, unlike the Hudson River School painters, who displayed a predilection for well-known landmarks, Blakelock increasingly expressed a subjective, non-topographic inner world in his works. He first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1867 and continued to do so for over a decade, with less and less success. His landscapes were not understood or popular with Americans, who sought solace and uplifting optimism in their countyside. Eventually, Blakelock collapsed under the strain of his repeated failures and, in 1901, entereed a mental institution. Iconically, his collapse came the year he was voted a full member of the National Academy. The growing demand for his pictures during the last years of his life spawned a large number of forgeries, which he was powerless to denounce or stop.
A Mountain Stream was painted following Blakelock's return from his second western trip. From this time until about 1880, he tried to synthesize accurately rendered landscape with his personal response to nature. This scene depicts a stream flowing through a forest interior. While it is highly detailed, it exhibits greater spontaneity and painterliness than his earlier works. The background is soft and hazy, with a mountain dimly seen against the cloudy sky. The painting evokes not the kind of pantheism inherent in Hudson River School works, but Blakelock's response to the specific place and his experiences of nature. The scene is filled with bright lights that seem to glow from within. The trees appear to compress the space at the foot of the mountain. The crisp light and compact composition make A Mountain Stream an intimate yet remote fragment of nature, charged with a psychic energy and free from man's corruption.