Summoning the Ghost in R. A. Blakelock’s “Moonlit Lake”

April 25th, 2020  |  Published in *, April 2020

Ralph Albert Blakelock, “Moonlit Lake” (c. 1890), oil on canvas, 22 5/16 x 18 1/8 in. (56.6 x 46.1 cm), collection Cincinnati Art Museum

“These capricious vagabonds fly somewhat in the manner of bats,” Camille Flammarion wrote in 1872[1], “which seem to dive at the turrets, and suddenly turn back, describing a parabola, to vanish in an unexpected direction.” Although the French astronomer was describing the movement of comets through the cosmos, he may as well have been describing my own trajectories through art museums, where my movements tend to be subject to the strange gravitational pulls of art and other massive bodies. It would have been one such parabola that placed me in front of American painter R. A. Blakeclock’s Moonlit Lake (c.1890) at the Cincinnati Art Museum sometime in late 2004. At the time I was an undergraduate studying painting at the Art Academy of Cincinnati, then still a part of the museum’s Eden Park campus, and I often spent afternoons at the museum in search of ecstatic truth. That semester I had been accumulating overdue fines on a book of writings[2] by Russian painter Kasimir Malevich, which included a color plate of his seminal 1915 painting Black Square, and I remember an uncanny chill of displaced recognition when I landed in front of Blakelock’s small nocturnal landscape.

After the turn of the century, Ralph Albert Blakelock was among the most celebrated painters in America. In New York, exhibitions of his dark landscapes were sensationalized by newspapers and attended by thousands. In 1916 his Brook by Moonlight (painted around the same time as Moonlit Lake) set the record for the highest price paid for a painting by a living American artist when the Toledo Museum of Art purchased it from a previous owner for $20,000. Yet his dramatic life, marked by devastating poverty, confinement in mental institutions, and a withering plot by a con artist (vividly recounted in Glyn Vincent’s superb 2003 biography[3] The Unknown Night), ultimately ended in tragedy. Now more than a century after his death in 1919, his paintings are all but a dusty footnote in the annals of American art history. But they are important and ripe for rediscovery: They establish a tangible link between the earlier Hudson River School and later Abstract Expressionism. Particularly in the case of his sublime moonlit scenes of the 1880s and 90s, steeped in Swedenborgian mysticism[4], his works blaze a distinctly American path that runs parallel to European Impressionism, informed more by spiritual and metaphysical concerns shared by the Transcendentalists. As his friend and fellow painter Elliott Daingerfield put it, “No tricks of dots placed in juxtapositions—no decomposition of the spectrum, no giving up of form for the sake of a dazzled eye.”[5] Indeed.

How is it that these paintings have been forgotten? What did the exultant crowds and critics of 1916 see in these misty canvases? If his work was so influential, and touches so close to a main artery of an American psyche, surely the celebration of his work was more than a passing fad, the hype of a con artist, or newspapers’ exploitation of a suffering man’s mental illness? I’m convinced something is here. A ghost lurks beneath the surface of this painting, a spirit to be awakened. To put it another way: The outward contexts that converge on the painting—the art historical, social, scientific amalgam in which the paintings came to exist—are only half the picture. What of its interior nature?

It takes some time for the Moonlit Lake’s details to fully render out of darkness. The  composition divides into quadrants—three (left and lower) are almost solid black, thickly impastoed and veined with the cracks that had lured me in. The fourth quadrant (upper right) is a comparatively luminous gray-green expanse of sky through which a full moon’s light seems to refract in layers of transparent glazes. The moon’s light permeates a silhouette lattice of branches which seem to reach out to touch the moon, a transcendental recapitulation of Michaelango’s Adam. The eye is drawn to the painting’s heavier lower half, which is anchored by the reflection of the moon in a pool of water cradled by foliage describing a luminous, inverted triangle, some spirit hovering over the waters of a formless void. This doubled moon reminds me of a Jorges Luis Borges story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius in which a similar scene (“the moon rose above the river”) is described by a fictional alien race whose language lacks nouns: “‘hlör u fang axaxaxas mlö,’ or, as Xul Solar succinctly translates: ‘Upward, behind the onstreaming it mooned.’”[6]

Borges also wrote a short biographical sketch of Emmanual Swedenborg (1688-1772), the Swedish scientist-turned-mystic who inspired Blakelock. He neatly summarizes Swedenborg’s notion of correspondences, which hold that the visible world is a text, and each word (so to speak) corresponds to another form in the real, spiritual world. In his many exegetic writings, such as Heaven and Hell and Other Planets, Swedenborg described visiting[7] this other world and talking with spirits and angels. Inflecting his own interests, Borges writes: “The disturbing suspicion [is] that we are ciphers and symbols in a divine cryptography, whose true meaning we do not know.”[8] This idiosyncratic inflection of Swedenborg seems related to Blakelock’s own, as evidenced in Moonlit Lake and other paintings. What Swedenborg’s cosmology provides to Borges and is especially relevant to Swedenborgianism in nineteenth century America is the idea of a re-enchantment of nature, which Borges nails: “Swedenborg […] arrives at the concept of the microcosm: man as either the mirror or the compendium of the universe. […] Heaven and Hell are in man, who equally contains plants, mountains, seas, continents, minerals, trees, herbs, flowers, thorns, animals, reptiles, birds, fish, tools, cities, and buildings.”[9]

 Blakelock’s style is frequently likened to the French Barbizon school of painting, namely Théodore Rousseau, Jean-François Millet, Jules Dupré, and especially Díaz de la Peña and his treatment of trees. Looking at works like Díaz’s The Forest of Fontainebleau[10] (1874), the comparison seems apt. Scholars disagree if and to what extent Blakelock would have been directly exposed to these paintings, which would have only recently been introduced to American viewers. It may have been through photographs (as Daingerfield hints), via a tract of printed art lectures (as Vincent speculates), or indirectly, by other artists such as Alexander H. Wyant (as suggested by David Gebhard). Interestingly, this latter comparison is especially interesting given that Wyant is closely associated with Cincinnati. Wyant painted landscapes here in Cincinnati in the late 1850s. An exhibition of paintings by George Inness in 1857 inspired him to travel to New York and meet Inness, who in turn brought Wyant to the attention of Nicholas Longworth in Cincinnati. Longworth, impressed by the young painter (and surely the lofty recommendation from Inness), financed Wyant’s studies (in Cincinnati and New York) and then to travel abroad in the 1860s. In Paris Wyant encountered the Barbizon school painters. After several years abroad, Wyant returned to the United States and settled in New York, where he ran in the same social circle as Blakelock.[11] That circle was deeply under the influence of Swedenborg.

George Inness, “Moonrise” (1887), oil on canvas, 20 1/4 × 30 1/2 in. (51.4 × 77.5 cm), collection Yale University Gallery of Art

“Swedenborg, of all men in the recent ages, stands eminently for the translator of nature into thought,” Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said in his essay “The Poet.”[12] A current of Swedenborgianism flows deeply through the American psyche. John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, distributed Swedenborgian literature along with apple trees. Romanticism and Transcendentalism, evident in the writings of Emerson as well as Henry David Thoreau, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, and many others, are steeped in Swedenborgian cosmology. And it would be the Hudson River School painters, who followed the Transcendentalists, that helped visualize the role of nature in American mythos, painting the dramatic backdrop for expansionism and planting the seeds of American environmentalism.[13] Blakelock, along with artists Hiram Powers, William Page, and George Inness, responded to these painter’s visions with a less heroic, more inward aesthetic philosophy explicitly grounded in Swedenborgian theosophy.

George Inness, who is closely associated with Blakelock, is perhaps best known for his injection of Swedenborgian theology in his own misty landscapes. In 1867 he wrote a short essay “Colors and Their Correspondences”[14] for the Swedenborgian newsletter The New Jerusalem Messenger in which he developed a theological system of color theory. For example: “Blue presents an idea of what is spiritual and appears like something intangible.” By studying color combinations and their spiritual effects, Inness believed his paintings could act as a window through which divinity might shine. This is evident in his spectacular painting Moonrise (1887)[15] in which a glowing orange moon, touching the horizon, bathes a field in a spectral, shimmering half-light that miraculously reads as blue and orange at the same time.

Blakelock’s paintings, by contrast, operate more so with expressive texture and juxtapositions of lightness and darkness than with color. They are inwardly focused. Deeply psychological, even approaching surrealism, they seem to possess an interiority manifested in his expressive brushwork and surfaces. As with many of his paintings, gazing into Moonlit Lake unfolds a spectral corridor that the viewer might traverse to some unknown place. The triangle of light shimmering on the lake at the canvas’s lower half might also read as a path moving to its misty horizon. Its spatial logic, defined by the edges of the foliage and the scraped fade of lighter pigment, is incongruous with its surroundings, like a sudden interpolation of an M.C. Escher staircase in a strange forest. The effect is a marvelous tension, an oscillation between the light’s forward projection and the spectral path inward, inverting the expected figure/ground relationship. Once seen, this oscillation ripples out along the dark surface and activates other passages, charging the picture with a profound alterity. The edge marking the boundaries of the tree and the luminous gray-green sky becomes an active site of continual rupturing between inside and outside, visible and invisible, which permeates the painting’s layered surfaces.

Ralph Albert Blakelock, “Moonlit Lake”, detail. Is this moonlight shimmering on the water’s surface — a path to some unknown inward territory?

Blakelock, who was self-taught, would not have set out to make a painting with an exact endpoint in mind. Rather, he would have arrived at these effects intuitively and experimentally. Daingerfield, who frequented Blakelock’s studio, relays how sometimes this experimentation would yield unexpected results. After briefly experimenting with bitumen, Daingerfield says that the paintings, after having been completed and sold, “slipped off the canvas, and were lying on the floor in a mass of brown gum.”[16] Daingerfield also gives a useful accounting of Blakelock’s process in constructing a painting, beginning with a “firm, hard, impasto ground.” He continues:

“When the silvery ground of his picture was hard and dry, he floated upon it more forms, using thin paints much richer in quality of color; when partly dry these were flattened with a palette knife, the forms brought into relief by subtle wipings [sic], and once more allowed to dry. This process was repeated frequently, and when the surface became gummy or over glazed, he reduced it by grinding with pumice stone. The effect of this would bring the under silver of his first impasto into view, and with this for his key of gray he developed his theme, drawing with the darker and relieving with the under paint.” [17]

The convergence of process and result in Blakelock’s studio practice is at the heart of his anticipation of Abstract Expressionism. His entrancement in textures and surfaces is at minimum comorbid with his Swedenborgian views, which charges all things with spiritual essence, the unseen thing that he sought to reveal in his paintings.

Blakelock was not the only artist of his time exploring darkness and concealment. In addition to Blakelock and Inness, painters including Winslow Homer, Lowell Birge Harrison, James McNeill Whistler, and many others were also exploring dark, even haunted subjects. Art historian Hélène Valance’s book Nocturne: Night in American Art, 1890-1917 explores this theme and locates it in relation to social, political, and technological developments shaping American culture at the time. These trends account not only for the context in which Blakelock was drawn to dark settings but also for their ecstatic reception. In brief, Valance points to scientific discoveries, such as X-rays and radiography that suddenly expanded the domain of the visible. Moreover, the 1890s saw the introduction of electric lighting to urban settings, which forever changed the phenomenology of night and darkness. And the camera, of course, was also causing painters to reconsider the ways in which their practice relates to representation. The rise and popularity of nocturnal painting, she contends, can be understood as a part of a wider trend towards antimodernism.[18] One could also add the developments in the field of psychology and the popular conception of the unconscious. This was lumped into a public frenzy for all things occult, including Swedenborgianism — so much so that in 1912 a New York Swedenborgian minister Rev. John Goddard was compelled to publish a tract entitled Right and Wrong Unveilings of the Spiritual World, which sought to decouple Christian Swedenborgianism from its occult-ish, Spiritualist associations.[19]

Like Whistler, who in 1874 was the first artist to borrow the word “nocturne” from the vernacular of music, using it to describe the formalistic intentions of his misty canvases in which almost nothing is visible,[20] Blakelock viewed his work in musical terms. Daingerfield’s biography contains an anecdote worth retelling that also illustrates something of Blakelock’s energy. It involves one of Blakelock’s closest friends and supporters, the painter Harry Watrous, with whom Blakelock sometimes shared a studio space:

Watrous had been annoyed all day by a queer, tinkling, weird sort of music, the sound of which came jerkily, but incessantly, from Blakelock’s studio. Unable to endure it longer, he went into the studio and found Blakelock alternately rushing from his easel to the piano, playing a few notes of this fantastic air, and back again to the easel, painting a few hasty touches. The picture was “Indian Dance” — “I can’t make these Indians dance, Watrous; all day I’ve been trying and they won’t dance!” And off he would go to the piano and bang out the notes which haunted him from some incident in Indian life.[21]

Ralph Albert Blakelock, “Ghost Dance (Vision of Life)” (1895/97) oil on canvas, 53.7 × 100 cm (21 1/8 × 39 3/8 in.) collection Art Institute of Chicago

Daingerfield might have been referring to  Ghost Dance (Vision of Life) (1895/97).[22] This remarkable work fuses Blakelock’s Swedenborgian mysticism with his lifelong interest in Native American culture, which originated in his trips to the Western frontier as a young man in the 1870s. Glyn Vincent notes that Blakelock spent time among the Sioux, Assiniboins, Ricarees, and Assiniboins, and he spent more than a month traveling with the Uinta tribe in the Snake River valley of Wyoming beneath the dramatic snow capped peaks of the Teton Range: “He was with them every day as they hunted and fished, as they built and broke down their camps, as they floated downstream on their canoes and sat around the fire at night discussing the day’s events.”[23] Many of Blakelock’s early paintings depict Native American scenes recalled from these experiences. His manner of doing so, though somewhat problematic to modern eyes, would have been seen as progressive at the time, since they resisted trends to dramatize[24]. Here, well into the 1890s, the figures are seen in spectral form, and their overlapping movements even anticipate Duchamp’s Nude Descending Staircase No. 2 (1912)[25] that wouldn’t come for nearly another decade. By the time Blakelock painted Ghost Dance, the visible presence of Native American scenes had largely diminished in his work. “By the 1880s,” Vincent writes, Blakelock “was no longer painting the dance itself, but the dreamlike memory of a distant, primeval event.”[26]

This transition of his depiction of Native American scenes from visible to invisible also, as Vincent alludes, runs parallel to Blakelock’s departure from representation of identifiable landscapes to imagined ones, informed by his experiences on the western frontier and refracted in his memory. The progression additionally reflects the tragedy, which can only be called genocide, taking place at that time in America. Valence situates nocturne paintings, including Blakelocks, in the context of white culture metabolizing the horror and guilt of complicity in that violent erasure of Native Americans:

That spectacular vanishing—a contradiction in terms—accommodates itself perfectly to the paradoxical visual functioning of the nocturne. Just as the nocturne, in turning away from direct and precise representation, set out to deploy a vision that reflected the beholder’s inner life, here the nocturnal landscape of the West, which shows Indians while hiding them at the same time, turns the beholder’s gaze back toward the past. Like that of Manifest Destiny, the discourse of the supposedly vanishing Indian was created by and directed toward the white settler: the dark veil of vanishing actually concealed a mirror.[27]

It’s an interesting irony to ponder the juxtaposition of this tragedy, which is on the largest scale imaginable, and its relationship to westward expansion and Manifest Destiny, which the Hudson River School painters made visible and may have even contributed to accelerating. Then considering a painter like Blakelock, and how paintings such as Moonlit Lake represent a shadowed or dark mirror refraction of the same Transcendentalist spiritual theosophy. If Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (1868)[28] shows America’s grandiose self image, then maybe Blakelock’s own equally sublime masterpiece Brook By Moonlight (before 1891)[29] is a window into its shadowy unconscious.

A cloud form floats at the center of Moonlit Lake. Is it an accident? An impulse gone awry? It doesn’t correspond to any logic in the spatial structure of the scene depicted. It sits behind a bush and in front of the tree, yet it also falls behind the line of trees at the distant horizon. The atmospheric layers in the sky even seem to encircle it. The hallucinatory optical effect achieved with the reflection of moonlight, which I described earlier, may have been what activates the painting, but this supernatural cloud is the gateway into its deep oneiric weirdness. It resists interpretation. It is.

POSTSCRIPT

It seems Flamarrion’s capricious vagabond bats have, once again, brought me to a place of uncanny recognition in the halls of the Cincinnati Art Museum (or, in this time of quarantine, on the Cincinnati Art Museum’s website). Alexander Wyant’s An Adirondack Brook (1883), in the collection of the Cincinnati Art Museum, seems to support the conjecture that one of Blakelock’s major influences was by way of this Cincinnati-native painter. It also serves as a kind of mirror image to Moonlit Lake. Although not nearly as dark as Blakelock’s, Wyant’s composition shows a corridor within a forest, cast in shadow, leading to a clearing where a ray of sunlight bursts brilliantly on gold flecked leaves and the bark of a birch tree. His use of color tells much of the influence of Inness and his Swedenborgian spiritual-aesthetic theory. A patch of sky engages in a value reversal with its surrounding leaves, seeming to stand off the canvas in much the same way as Blakelock’s Moonlit Lake.

–Steve Kemple

Alexander Wyant “An Adirondack Brook” (1883) oil on canvas, 24 5/16 x 20 1/8 in. (61.8 x 51.1 cm); right: Ralph Albert Blakelock, “Moonlit Lake” (c. 1890), oil on canvas, 22 5/16 x 18 1/8 in. (56.6 x 46.1 cm). Both images in collection Cincinnati Art Museum

[1] Camille Flammarion (trans. S. R. Crocker). Stories of Infinity: Lumen–History of a Comet–In Infinity. (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1873). pg. 261.

[2] In his 1927 “Suprematist Manifesto” Malevich declared: “The visual phenomena of the objective world are, in themselves, meaningless.” The objective (no pun intended) of Supremetatist painting, then, was in reaching a “desert in which nothing can be perceived but feeling.” See Kasimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World (exhibition catalogue). Chicago: Paul Theobald & Company, 1959. p66-102.

[3] This book has been my main source of biographical information about Blakelock, and it pointed me to many other sources. I’m only citing it for direct quotes, which will be cited with chapter and location numbers referring to its Kindle ebook edition.

[4] As a Swedenborgian, Blakelock believed in two worlds: a world of appearances and a world of spirit expressed in those appearances. Blakelock’s wider cultural environment as well would have been steeped in spiritualism, which was a major element of mid-nineteenth century America and, as scholar Mark Power Smith has shown, particularly so for New York City where Blakelock lived and worked and where his paintings soared in popularity. It seems that in order to fully engage with this painting, it must be engaged with as an object presumed to be infused with spirit.

[5] Elliott Daingerfield, Ralph Albert Blakelock (1914), pg 29.

[6] Jorges Luis Borges (trans. Andrew Hurley). “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” in Collected Fictions. (Penguin Books: 1998). pg 73.

[7] Swedenborg’s first vision of the other took place in the middle of April, 1745, when he was 55 years old. In his diary, he described this bewildering encounter: “I was in London, and dined rather late at the inn where I was in the habit of dining and where I had my own room. My thoughts were engaged on the subjects we have been discussing. I was hungry and ate with a good appetite. Toward the close of the meal I noticed a sort of dimness before my eyes; this became denser, and I then saw the floor covered with the most horrid crawling reptiles, such as snakes, frogs, and similar creatures. I was amazed, for I was perfectly conscious and my thoughts were clear. At last the darkness increased still more; but it disappeared all at once, and then I saw a man sitting in the corner of the room: as I was then alone I was very much frightened at his words; for he said, ‘Eat not so much.’ All became black again before my eyes, but immediately it cleared away and I found myself alone in the room.” (recounded in Swedenborg: Harbinger of the New Age of The Christian Church. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1910). Pg 170.

[8] Jorges Luis Borges (trans. Andrew Hurley). “Emanuel Swedenborg, Mystical Works” in Collected Non-Fictions. (Penguin Books: 1999). pg 457.

[9] Ibid. 457

[10] In the collection of the MET: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/436196

[11] See the biography at the National Gallery of Art: https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1984.html

[12] Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet” in Essays: Second Series. (Ticknor and Fields, 1865), pg. 38.

[13] A topic that Devin P. Zuber explores in his new book A Language of Things: Emanuel Swedenborg and the American Environmental Imagination. (University of Virginia Press: 2020), which also discusses George Inness and nineteenth century landscape painting.

[14] Cited in Sally M. Promey, “The Ribband of Faith: George Inness, Color Theory, and the Swedenborgian Church.” The American Art Journal Vol. 26, No. 1/2 (1994) pp. 44-65. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1594593

[15] In the Yale Gallery of Art: https://artgallery.yale.edu/collections/objects/59314

[16] Daingerfield, 17.

[17] Ibid. 18-19.

[18] Hélène Valance (trans. Jane Marie Todd). Nocturne: Night in American Art, 1890-1917. Yale University Press, 2015. pg. 17.

[19] Rev. John Goddard. Right and Wrong Unveilings of the Spiritual World. (New-Church Board of Publication, 1912).

[20] “Nothing is visible” is a delicious paradox, epitomized in Valance’s striking term Antivisions.

[21] Daingertfield, 32.

[22] Art Institute of Chicago: https://www.artic.edu/artworks/90062/ghost-dance-the-vision-of-life

[23] Vincent, “To Wyoming” Loc. 1765.

[24] Compare, for example, Bierstadt’s The Last of the Buffalo (1888) https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.124525.html with Blakelock’s An Indian Encampment (1880s)  https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/10180

[25] Philadelphia Museum of Art: https://philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/51449.html

[26] Vincent, “To Wyoming” Loc. 1853.

[27] Valence, “Vanishing Indians: Nostalgic Reminiscence and Haunting Presence.” in Nocturnes. pg. 118.

[28] Smithsonian American Art Museum https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/among-sierra-nevada-california-2059

[29] Toledo Museum of Art http://emuseum.toledomuseum.org/objects/60257

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