Painting Banknotes, Coining Landscape: Ralph Blakelock and the Economics of the Nocturne

Thursday Lecture Series

The language of value, in its aesthetic and monetary ambivalence, has long played a role in destabilizing artistic representation, from the sixteenth-century portraits of Flemish moneylenders to Andy Warhol’s dollar bills. This talk examines a specific moment of that history—the United States in the final decades of the nineteenth century—when artistic and economic theories coalesced around landscape, a genre that Americans feared functioned too much like money within economic circuits. From the period’s rampant land speculation, volatile art markets, and debates surrounding paper currency emerged an aesthetic vocabulary for economics (of illusionism, imitation, surfaces and depths) especially pertinent to the construction of landscape pictures.

To explore the complex entanglement of landscape painting and economics, this talk will focus on a particularly apt figure, Ralph Blakelock (1847-1919), an American nocturne painter who ended his career by making landscapes that mimic circulating banknotes. Though little known today, Blakelock was a household name in American culture around 1900, twice setting records for the price of his paintings. This talk will trace Blakelock’s attempts to secure his landscapes against economic abstraction and the eventual undoing of his efforts. His paintings not only underwent the entropic processes of the capitalist system (both literal and financial liquefaction) but were also subject to the dangerous tendencies of currency itself: counterfeiting, uneven exchange, even hoarding. Blakelock’s aesthetic struggles poignantly, and at times humorously, reveal the material and spatial anxieties surrounding economic modernity at the turn of the century.