There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Ralph Albert Blakelock’s dark, evocative paintings of moonlit nights are favorites of turn-of-the-century-landscape connoisseurs. The Moonlight that the National Gallery of Art acquired in 1943 drew the requisite praise from Blakelock fans and experts—that is, until they realized it isn’t really a Blakelock.
At the height of his fame, Blakelock was considered the most frequently forged American artist. He was also an inmate of New York’s Middletown State Homeopathic Hospital, where he spent the last 20 years of his life. Both Blakelock’s artistic reputation and the value of his works increased in the aftermath of his confinement. With the demand for Blakelocks far outstripping the supply, a cottage industry of forgery developed to fill the gap. The artist, who had lived in poverty for decades by the time of his 1899 hospitalization, received little or no money from this sudden boom in sales.
Some biographers claim that Blakelock was driven mad by his lack of success. Most also note that he had a persistent delusion that he was very wealthy. While at Middletown, the painter created elaborate designs for bank notes, often signing them “A1” (for “Albert I”). Blakelock even gave William T. Cresmer, a rich art dealer and collector who earned his trust, a
million-dollar bill that he had crafted from his shirttail, torn on a fence during a walk around the hospital grounds.
Blakelock expert Norman Geske claims that Moonlights constitute about three-fourths of the nearly 1,000 Blakelock forgeries he’s seen, presumably because paintings of this type have routinely sold for higher prices than others in the artist’s oeuvre. The National Gallery’s piece was Lot 81 at an unrestricted public sale of several private collections held in New York City in 1932, when it was purchased by Chester Dale for $700. Dale donated his entire collection to the National Gallery in 1943.
Abraham Davidson, the author of the monograph Ralph Albert Blakelock, describes the typical Blakelock forgery as “an assemblage of Blakelock cliches utterly devoid of his poetry.”
Notes from the National Gallery’s curatorial records reveal that Moonlight began to look a little less than poetic not too long after it was bequeathed: In 1964, National Gallery curator William P. Campbell wrote that the painting’s “atypical bright colors” and “unusual and obvious symmetry” might have resulted from Blakelock’s deteriorating mental state. In 1965, another scholar suggested that the work’s “soft, sinuous, and relatively formless” trees compared unfavorably with the typically “gnarled, angular” Blakelock tree. By 1976, Geske had pointed out “the shorthand rocks to the sides and the trees painted over the sky, instead of [the] sky being drawn in to define the tree.”
When it was acquired by the National Gallery, Moonlight came with an authentication by Elliott Daingerfield, an artist who published a book on Blakelock in 1914. Daingerfield’s note reads in part: “This picture, to anyone knowing the work of Blakelock, is a masterpiece. It has in my judgment all his fine qualities of the last period and the qualities are of his best work. Whoever owns this picture is in great good fortune; I wish that I were the fortunate Owner.”
But the National Gallery apparently didn’t consider itself so fortunate. In a note dated Dec. 30, 1964, Campbell cast doubt on the credibility of Daingerfield’s authentication: “[Art dealer] Victor Spark says that Greenwald, a well-known forger of Blakelocks and Ryders of the 1920’s, got Daingerfield to authenticate the forgeries, offering to purchase Daingerfield’s own works at the same time.”
In 1981, Moonlight’s attribution was changed to “Imitator of Ralph Albert Blakelock.” The piece now hangs in a storage room, hidden from public view. CP