Attributed to Ralph Blackelock

Art 101 blog attributed to Blakelock
I was all set to talk about the romantic landscape and the dubious use of bitumen with paint by artists of the 19th century. But this painting has another fascinating story related to its attribution. Have you ever wondered why a work of art is listed as “attributed to” rather than “by” a particular artist? It takes a bit of detective work to verify the authenticity of a work.

In the case of Indian Encampment, c. 1890, oil on canvas, attributed to Ralph Blakelock, the authenticity was not questioned until 1969. And then, apparently, the questioning was ignored or discounted until 1999 when the Swope, under the curatorship of Laurette McCarthy, changed the listing from by Ralph Blakelock to attributed to Ralph Blakelock.

In 1969 the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, (I know, confusing isn’t it) conducted an extensive study of the work of Blakelock. They were able to amass the loans of nearly two hundred paintings and drawings ascribed to the artist. Over eight days in July, 1969, an assembly of scholars, conservators, collectors and dealers examined the works. The unique opportunity to observe so many works together allowed a comparison of works with unquestionable attribution to those of less sure heritage. In the course of examination Indian Encampment was photographed under ultraviolet light, infra-red light and x-ray (I cannot imagine the expense of such an extensive examination of that many works of art).

Now you must understand that the work is a typical subject for Blakelock, a night scene and an Indian camp. And the provenance seems in order- going all the way back to the artist. However, though the work is signed, it turns out he was a popular artist to forge. Below are the findings of the study of number 67 on the University of Nebraska Blakelock Inventory:

First the works were classified into groups labeled one through four.
One: works with completely documented history of ownership (provenance). This group provided the technical and stylistic criteria for comparisons.
Two: Works with features that compare favorably with group One but which have incomplete histories.
Three: incomplete or missing histories and with characteristics partially in accord, partially divergent from the comparison group.
Four: without histories and characteristics not in agreement with the comparison group.

From a letter to the Swope dated 1998, from Norman Geske, former curator of the Sheldon Gallery, Nebraska:
“Actually the painting was assigned to Category III of the Inventory’s classification system, which indicates that it attribution to Blakelock is “questionable”. In reviewing the file photographs made at the time it would appear to me that this classification is still valid. While the subject, composition and , to some degree, the handling are plausible, there are “questionable” elements – the scale of the tepee and the manner of its execution are quite unlikely, the rendering of the tree forms are generalized to the point that they have no organic structure. One of the photographs, taken with infra-red light, reveals an extremely casual procedure.

The provenance which you provide was not given us at the time of the examination in 1971.[the exam took place in 1969, however reports were not completed until 1971] It is persuasive but not necessarily conclusive. My judgment is, finally, based on qualitative considerations. The painting does not represent the artist at his best, nor even his average best.”

That said, it is an interesting little painting. If you have the chance to come by the Swope you will find it hanging in the The Mary Fendrich Hulman Gallery, Art of the American West, under a small painting attributed to Albert Bierstadt.

4 thoughts on “Attributed to Ralph Blackelock

  1. Can’t help wondering who footed the bill for that Blakelock conclave at the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery- was it the various lending institutions who’d sent in their Blakelocks hoping for verification or at least clarification of authenticity? If that was the case, then probably owners of “Blakelock” paintings that really were dubious probably wouldn’t have participated as they’d have the most to loose.

  2. Phil,
    it turns out the research project was supported by grants from the National Foundation for the Arts and Humanities and the University of Nebraska Research Council.

    I would also like to amend- that the Swope only received a preliminary report, in 1971, which was inconclusive. It was not until Ms. McCarthy wrote to the Sheldon Gallery in Nebraska asking for confirmation that the Swope received the category III report.

    An interesting aside-the provenance goes all the way back to the artist, however documents to back that up are missing. And the time period of the sale from artist to first owner is the time period when Blakelock was on and off institutionalized for schizophrenia. Sadly, that is the same time period when his work was becoming popular, both with buyers and with forgers, and, unfortunately, he did not benefit from these sales.

  3. If one has an “attributed to Blakelock” how does one go about having it investigated? Or more to the point, as there are so many fakes, determining if it is worth investigating?

  4. Ernest,
    I would begin by looking for an expert on the work of the Artist. The Nebraska University Sheldon Museum of Art, where the research mentioned above was conducted, would be a good place to start your inquiries. They should have the archives of the study. In addition they have five paintings by Blakelock listed on their website collection database and it is likely they still have scholarly contacts interested in work by or attributed to the artist. You might also look for names of authors of recent books and articles on the artist.

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