Albert Pinkham Ryder images and biography
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Albert Pinkham Ryder


Ryder was an erratic painter, and his reputation rests on perhaps a dozen works, most of which are his famous "marines" - dark, concentrated images of boats, the fishing smacks of his New England youth, pitted against wind and wave under the centered, tide dragging eye of the moon. Images like Moonlight Marine are diminutive in size but large in scale. They concentrate the Romantic terrors of seascape; in them Ryder showed that he was the Samuel Palmer of Ishmael's "watery part of the world." Thick darkness and eerie light turn in the sky; the turgid sea heaves, scattered with moon flakes and endowed with a Courbet-like solidity by Ryder's constant overpainting. "My soul, like to a ship in a black storm, / Is driven I know not whither " Vittoria's dying words in John Webster's Jacobean tragedy The White Devil seem to fit this recurrent and obsessive vision of human fate, the boat scudding in the maw of the waves or becalmed, like a floating coffin, on the expectant water.

The strong tonal structure of the marine paintings, with their big masses, holds them together despite their rapid degeneration over time. For Ryder was an appallingly bad technician. In pursuit of jewel-like light effects and a deep layering of color, he would paint "lean over fat" so that slower drying strata of paint below pulled the quicker drying surface apart. He would slosh messes of varnish on the surface, and pile up the pigment by incessant retouching until the images became pitch lakes. Then there was the dirt. "It's appalling, this craze for clean-looking pictures," Ryder once complained. "Nature isn't clean." Neither was his pack rat's nest of a New York studio, where he slept on a rolled up carpet. Preserving Ryders has long been a conservator's nightmare and a losing battle as well. The glow and atmospheric subtlety that early American moderns praised in Ryder's work eighty years ago have to be taken on faith today; they are almost gone.

Though his color was rich, he drew feebly. The convention is to treat this as Ryder's good luck, as though it permitted his native, visionary qualities to prosper, unsullied by academic convention. But the truth is that his figures and animals never benefited from his awkwardness. Ill schooled in anatomy, he spent no time looking at bodies and analyzing their structure. His men and women looked like slugs. He was very far from the great American empiricists, Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. Instead he generalized. He was like Edgar Allan Poe - so overwrought, and yet so influential. Though he was never (in his own view) a modernist, a succession of American artists from Marsden Hartley to Jackson Pollock and beyond would look up to him as an emblem of esthetic purity, a holy sage, and the native prophet who linked tradition to modernism.

As the saint of Greenwich Village he attracted acolytes, who tended to be artists of a religious bent who felt the pangs of spiritual inadequacy and were looking for father figures. One such man was Kenneth Hayes Miller (1876-1952), in his youth a symbolist whose wistful, indeterminate figures owed much to Ryder. It seems that Ryder reminded Miller of his father, an elder in one of the odd mystical sects that flourished in America - the Oneida community in upstate New York. Miller left Oneida to study art in New York; in doing so he took on a load of apostasy guilt which he could only assuage by convincing himself of a duty to minister to the peevish and aging Ryder, his second father. (He also had the bad luck to marry a young Oneida woman who, after the wedding, announced that she was renouncing sex as a drag on her spiritual growth.) Small wonder that, when Ryder died, Miller declared that "I have never enjoyed New York so much, nor sensed it as richly as I do now." Relieved, he embraced the world and its pomps by painting groups of buxom women shoppers in cinquecento poses, trying on clothes in department store changerooms. This peculiar form of social realism had a great effect on his students Reginald Marsh and Isabel Bishop.

The idea of Ryder as secular saint was scripted into the very fabric of the Armory Show by Walt Kuhn and Arthur Davies. For Kuhn, there was "only Ryder in American painting." Davies had long concurred: his paintings faithfully echoed Ryder's storybook fantasies, with their enchanted groves and maidens and Siegfrieds. Ryder was the sole painter who, in their view, could make up for the dispiriting absence of a great national school of American art in the early twentieth century. Others, including some conservatives, also agreed: the critic Frank Jewett Mather, for instance, considered that Ryder and the tragic nineteenth-century romantic Ralph Blakelock were "the most American artists we have. Neither their minds nor their methods betray any alien tinge." If Ryder was truly a naif, a visionary, then there had to be some original current in America to which he had connected: a natural and instinctive vision, a sort of cultural birdsong, not imported from Europe. There were problems with this, since Ryder's own pictorial god was the French landscapist Jean Baptiste Camille Corot, and his themes (except for the "marines") were all drawn out of transatlantic literary and musical sources. Still, needing a sign of American parity, Davies made sure that Ryder was the only American to share the central space of the display with the European masters: Matisse, Cezanne, Gauguin, van Gogh. This endorsement (which no curator, one suspects, would make today) had something messianic and hopeful about it, but it also signaled a grave underlying pessimism. Dozens of American proto-modernists after 1900 had been imitating Ryder's moons and seas and forests, But did that make them truly "American," whatever that word, in the context of a modernist idiom, meant?

- From Robert Hughes, "American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America"

Further reading on Albert Pinkham Ryder:


Albert Pinkham Ryder Images

c. 1879 The Dead Bird
c. 1883 With Sloping Mast and Dipping Prow
c. 1885 Jonah
c. 1885 Jonah: DETAIL
c. 1887 The Flying Dutchman
c. 1896 The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse)
1896 Constance
c. 1908 Moonlight Marine
c. 1911 Moonlit Cove

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