Sarah Blakeslee’s pursuit of art began in her teenage years when the Evanston, Illinois, native enrolled in classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. After her family relocated to the Washington, D.C. area, she pursued further instruction at the Corcoran School of Art, at a private school operated by Catherine Critcher, and later at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. While a student there, Blakeslee was awarded two Cresson Traveling Scholarships that enabled her to spend a number of months abroad, time she used to visit museums and learn from first-hand encounters with the work of European masters.
Blakeslee developed into an accomplished and versatile artist using both watercolor and oil with equal dexterity. After her return to the states, she married one of her former Academy teachers, Francis Speight, in 1936. They moved to the bucolic community of Castle Valley in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where they lived until 1961. Always independent-minded, Sarah Blakeslee retained her maiden name as her professional moniker throughout her career.
Blakeslee painted directly from her subjects—whether the surrounding landscape or portraits of friends and family. One of her most freely painted works, Springhouse at Home, Castle Valley reflects the artist’s deft assimilation of both Impressionism and Realism. The painting depicts the family’s homestead, which Blakeslee certainly knew intimately. Her familiarity with the subject’s every detail allowed the artist to eschew specificity for an easy naturalism and painterly approach that favored areas of vivid color and broad, loose brushstrokes. The two-acre plot in Castle Valley included a three-story house built in 1820 and covered in yellow stucco; a springhouse stood near a creek running along the back and one side of the property. Two children, the artists’ son and daughter, are at the spring’s edge, an area where they likely often played. The spring itself seems fairly still compared to the turmoil of gestural brushstrokes in the trees above and behind the structure. Blakeslee’s contrasting treatment of the two areas serves to draw the viewer into the space and simultaneously invites exploration of the painting’s highly active surface.
During the busiest years of motherhood, Blakeslee’s domestic responsibilities slowed her career, yet she found time to produce still life paintings, figure studies, and interior scenes that were exhibited and won awards. Her impressive exhibition record dates back to 1937, when the twenty-five-year-old painter’s entries were accepted to the Forty-eighth Annual Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Fifteenth Biennial Exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. She frequently showed her work at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and participated in the 1939 and 1940 Golden Gate International Expositions in San Francisco and at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. In 1937, the United States Treasury Department Section of Fine Arts commissioned her to paint a mural for the post office in Strasburg, Virginia. Blakeslee’s work was the subject of two solo exhibitions at the Greenville, North Carolina, Museum of Art, in 1937 and 1963.