PRINT December 2021


Albert Pinkham Ryder, Jonah (detail), ca. 1885–95, oil on canvas mounted on fiberboard, 27 1⁄4 × 34 3⁄8".

THE NEW BEDFORD WHALING MUSEUM was a funny place to find a painting exhibition as momentous as “A Wild Note of Longing: Albert Pinkham Ryder and a Century of American Art,” which brought together twenty-four works by the early-modern poet-painter of emotionally charged marine pictures. It was a compact presentation, packed into a single gallery of an institution visited mainly for its local history of the booming, bloody industry that briefly made this coastal town the financial capital of nineteenth-century America. But while New Bedford, Massachusetts, was Ryder’s childhood home, it was only later, in New York—in a cluttered bachelor apartment on Washington Square—that the famously reclusive painter produced his strange, molten images of storm-tossed vessels and souls lost at sea. For American paintings of the late-nineteenth century, these were intensely mental, almost Symbolist seascapes, summoned from memory and by poetic invocation rather than through direct observation of nature. Ryder’s eccentrically extra-small-scale pictures have a slow-cooked, ruined look, appearing almost chemically browned. Continually reworked in the studio through experimental methods and unorthodox combinations of materials, his images have the unfixed quality of visions half-submerged in the materiality of their own ongoing painterly processes. Seeing them at the New Bedford museum, one might have imagined this work done by the guttering, stinky light of whale oil, if not literally painted with it.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Landscape, ca. 1870, oil on canvas, 9 1⁄4 × 12 3⁄4".

It was the museum’s acquisition in 2005 of Landscape, ca. 1870, a tiny, evanescent, nearly abstract pastoral scene, that sparked the museum’s first conversations with curator Elizabeth Broun (director emerita of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and internationally renowned Ryder expert), who teamed up with Christina Connett Brophy and William C. Agee in making this exhibition. A golden glimpse of New England countryside dissolving in magic-hour light . . . a nothing moment, suspended in space and in paint, that seems to retreat into the canvas along with a ghostly bit of canal and the blurry brown forms of a couple of trees. The whole world hovers within the humble dimensions of the nine-by-twelve-inch canvas, dimly gleaming at the limits of perception. The early phase of Ryder’s career was devoted to bucolic landscapes that struck contemporary viewers with their evocations of psychic and spiritual states. His miniature formats and transcendental sensibility took landscape painting down a path weirder than, and completely alien to, the spectacular panoramic vistas of his contemporary Albert Bierstadt and the overblown romanticism of the Hudson River and Barbizon Schools. Looking now, one gets the strange feeling of searching for paintings within the paintings themselves. Over the years, Ryder’s landscapes have yellowed and cracked, sometimes retaining only vague traces of their original colors. Subtle highlights were applied in delicate layers of glazing, and these don’t always survive. A degree of speculation is involved in viewing Ryder’s receding, mysterious, and radically simplified visions.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Spring, ca. 1879, oil on canvas, 14 1⁄8 × 18 3⁄4".

Ryder took constant risks with his pigments and techniques, always striving to push the medium beyond its conventional limits to get his paint “less painty looking.” For example, he achieved the strange, gemlike luminosity of The Shepherdess, ca. 1880s, by painting translucent glazes of color over a ground of gold leaf. The vaguely brushed figures in Spring, ca. 1879, and Landscape—Woman and Child, ca. 1875, are so barely-there on the surface, rendered with such delicacy that they seem about to dissolve in the moment of being seen. In these works, Ryder elicits a sensation of earthly and phantasmal fleetingness both in the viewer’s mind and in the paint. Mental moonlight illuminates spectral visions often transposed from poetry and myth. The Lovers’ Boat, ca. 1881, is a nocturnal scene painted on a small panel of varnished wood (an incorrigible hoarder, Ryder sometimes painted on the lids of cigar boxes), the grain and warm reddish tones of which bleed through in areas of the composition, becoming an active part of the work. This image of two lovers sailing off under a full moon marks Ryder’s shift from pastoral landscapes to the more personal and literary subjects of his later paintings.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, The Lovers’ Boat, ca. 1881, oil on wood panel, 11 3⁄8 × 12".

A celebrated, even cult artist in his day, Ryder became increasingly solitary in the 1890s. Overweight, possibly diabetic, loveless, and fiercely committed to his studio practice, the painter made occasional escapes to the country estates of his friends (Weir’s Orchard, ca. 1885–90). In the city, he was known to wander the banks of the Hudson River gazing at the moon. Ryder’s later phase consists almost entirely of seascapes. Wave-tossed, rudderless vessels carry hopeless sailors into the unknown. He wrote lyric poems to accompany these paintings. He reworked his own hoarded canvases for years, sometimes altering or destroying already-sold works. Ryder preferred to keep his painting in a continuous state of mutation: “Have you ever seen an inchworm crawl up a leaf or a twig, and then, clinging to the very end, revolve in the air, feeling for something to reach something? That’s like me. I am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing.”

Ryder’s late seascapes instigate a sudden crossing-over into modern American painting.

Taking its title from Coleridge, With Sloping Mast and Dipping Prow, ca. 1880–85, is a composition entirely submitted to the forces of nature, everything bending around the full moon at the painting’s center (a misguided restorer has since flattened the horizon). Flying Dutchman, 1887, is a turgid, thickly painted scene depicting a cursed, death-driven pursuit at sea. Ryder’s doomed human figures slither and fade like ghosts amid increasingly dense and gestural currents of paint, applied wet-on-wet. Jonah, ca. 1885–95, at roughly twenty-seven by thirty-four inches Ryder’s most epically scaled painting, imagines the titular biblical story as a seething, foam-crested chaos of awful greeny browns. A monstrous, cartoonish whale lurks on the right while a detached God levitates on the horizon. Lord Ullin’s Daughter, made before 1907, depicts a tragic couple at the moment of their annihilation by a crushingly thick wave of paint. Here, Ryder renders psychic and natural violence via a radical reduction of form and an amplification of gesture, both of which feel utterly modern. Jutting rocks, chunky backlit clouds, and solid, pasted-down waves send twentieth-century energies coursing through the paintings, overwhelming their fragile, weightless subjects.

Albert Pinkham Ryder, Lord Ullin’s Daughter, before 1907, oil on canvas mounted on fiberboard, 20 1⁄2 × 18 3⁄8".

Ryder’s late seascapes instigate a sudden crossing-over into modern American painting. We can see how much Marsden Hartley and Jackson Pollock took from his images, and the curators made sure to underline these influences by squeezing in a wall of works by Ryder’s aesthetic progeny.Ryder was known as both the last Romantic and the first authentically American modern artist. He was placed at the center of the Armory Show in 1913, but these days it takes some effort to locate his tiny canvases in the American Wing of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (check the visible storage in the Henry R. Luce Center). Looking now, we may recognize Ryder as the first local artist to fully tap the witchy energies of sadness and longing, using these to bend genre out of known formats. He’s maybe the closest thing we have to Odilon Redon; Hartley compared him to William Blake. It’s telling that his tragic and sublime seascapes were concocted in the studio, in gay downtown Manhattan. And especially today, we may find his questing, moonstruck subjects relatable, given the current biopolitical chaos and the nagging question of what a sensitive soul is meant to do now in New York. Ryder might say: Go hard in the paint, abandon all content but the most visionary, keep reaching, don’t look back.

John Kelsey is a contributing editor of Artforum.