Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) From time to time, we single out an artist whose work appears in our collection and celebrate his or her birthday. Today is the birthday of Albert Pinkham Ryder, and our Interpretation Manager, Aaron Jones, asked that he be permitted to prepare this post in honor of one of his favorite artists. —LD
Born on the 19th of March, 1847, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Albert Pinkham Ryder was a romantic painter whose powerful and dramatic nocturnes and marine compositions illicit a mood involving all the senses—savoring the sounds, smell, and visual effects of a cherished memory or haunting experience.
Largely unknown throughout his artistic career, Ryder was a contemporary of Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins. Accepted to the National Academy of Design in New York on his second attempt at the entrance exam, a disenchanted Ryder rebelled against the traditional discipline and abandoned realistic painting to express emotion. Ryder furthered his nonconformist reputation by adopting an unorthodox approach to painting as well. Experimenting with unconventional materials such as candle wax, grease, and alcohol, Ryder sought to achieve ethereal effects and visual mood that traditional painting media could not produce. The artist would apply multiple layers of his self-concocted media to his canvas, adding coats and reworking his compositions until he was satisfied. The process to complete a painting could take months, years, even up to a decade. One frustrated client of Ryder’s claimed that he had to leave instructions for his funeral procession to stop at the artist’s studio in order to collect his long-awaited painting. Ryder is said to have replied: “it couldn’t go out then unless ’twas done.”
Unfortunately, Ryder’s eccentric practice often resulted in the production of an unstable artwork. The strata of media applied in various layers and thicknesses would trap wet layers of paint and materials in the undersurface. The varied mixtures of pigment combined with household materials would dry at different rates, causing cracking to the surface of the painting, a common characteristic of Ryder’s work. In extreme instances, his works would be lost completely over time, due to the breakdown and deterioration of the materials.
Crystal Bridges is fortunate to possess a stable work produced by this great American painter. Located within the Nineteenth-Century Art Gallery, Ryder’s Misty Moonlight is a rare work in regard to the artist’s process and materials. His approach and techniques for this work were more conventional, allowing the painting to exist today in near-pristine condition. The composition depicts a lone watercraft quietly sailing on calm waters of a moonlit sea. Somber shades of olive, umber, and ochre create a dense atmosphere as the moon faintly penetrates the haze and spray. Darkness looms overhead, threatening to shroud the isolated vessel. Full sails contrasted against a solemn sky reveal wind as an unseen atmospheric element allowing the small craft to escape the encroaching darkness. Ryder masterfully marries each element into a unifying and poetic design, creating complete harmony in capturing the ethereal effects and visual mood of his mental image.
From 1900 until his death Ryder produced few works. He became a recluse and maintained contact with the world only through a few trusted friends. During these years Ryder reworked many of his earlier paintings, establishing a simplistic vision for evocation over technical ability which inspired the younger and progressive generation of American artists, including Arthur B. Davies, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Marsden Hartley. Recognized as a visionary and leader in the “New Movement,” Ryder’s position toward Modernism led to his nomination of honor in the Armory Show of 1913. Ten works by Ryder were featured within the central galleries, a location reserved for the legends that challenged the academic tradition, including Ingres, Delacroix, Goya, Corot, Gauguin, Cézanne, and van Gogh. Ryder was the sole American among them.
“Old Man Ryder” became recognized as America’s Old Master; the sole painter who made up for the dispiriting absence of a great national school of American art in the early twentieth century.