Albert Pinkham Ryder’s painting, The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse), is an eerie and dream-like representation of a ghostly rider on a ghostly horse holding a menacing scythe. Completed between 1896 and 1908, the oil on canvas work is part of the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art. This painting was inspired by a horse race that resulted in Ryder’s friend committing suicide after losing a $500 wager.
Ryder’s style is characterized by dream-like landscapes and ill-defined shapes or stylized figures. Often depicting scenes from literature, opera, and religion, his works are pervaded by thick yellow light – often moonlight – that creates generalized forms and masses of color instead of nonessential details. The Race Track fits this description as it depicts the ominous figure riding across an indistinct landscape with little else to discern.
Despite being one of his most renowned pieces, much remains uncertain about The Race Track including whether it was even meant to depict an actual horserace. Nonetheless, its ambiguous quality has ensured an enduring fascination for viewers sizing up the haunting rider against their own imaginings.