When European Modernism landed on American shores with the 1913 Armory Show, planners such as Walt Kuhn and Arthur Davies searched for an American artist to include with the likes of Cezanne and Matisse. Reaching back into the past, they pulled forward Albert Pinkham Ryder as the standard-bearer of proto-Modernism in American painting. Born March 19, 1847, Ryder had become by 1913 a sickly, eccentric, reclusive old man holed up in his filthy Greenwich Village home, nearly forgotten by the art world except for the informed insiders. The Ryder who painted works such as Roadside Meeting (above, from the 1880s) and befriended artists such as John La Farge and J. Alden Weir and authors such as Robert Louis Stevenson now appeared as a ghost of artistry long past and simultaneously a harbinger of things to come.
Ryder’s penchant for simplifying shapes and colors in works such as Moonlight Marine (above, from 1908) easily fits in with the reduction of the subject into basic shapes that marks much of modern art. Ryder’s love for imaginative literature, from the stories of Edgar Allen Poe to the tales of the Ring Cycle that Richard Wagner mined for his operas, fired his visual imagination. Moonlight Marine shows a mysterious seascape that suggests more than it presents, coyly drawing you into the darkness of the work itself. It is easy to take this mystery of Ryder’s paintings and apply them to the man himself, especially when considering his change in behavior in later years. However, Ryder did help found the Society of American Artists in 1878, the closest thing American art has had to a secessionist movement, in response to the exclusionary actions of the National Academy of Design. Like his paintings, Ryder himself was multi-layered; unlike his paintings, however, the façade of the myth of the lonely genius has yet to crack.
I like to think of Ryder as the American visual arts’ equivalent of Herman Melville in terms of “rediscovery.” Melville was never “forgotten,” but in the 1920s and 1930s, when America rose to world prominence post-World War I, the call went out for a great American novel and Moby-Dick was nominated. When American art and culture first embraced European modernism in 1913, they needed a champion of their own to meet the European modernists on the playing field. Ten of Ryder’s works appeared in the show. I personally love works such as Ryder’s The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse) (above, from 1895-1910) for their weirdness and strange beauty. He’s so unlike contemporaries such as Thomas Eakins and John Singer Sargent that it’s hard to believe they lived and painted at the same time. Ryder reportedly slept on a rolled-up carpet in his slovenly apartment near the end, having few visitors yet welcoming those who did seek him out. His poor technique of applying paints and varnishes, as well as the dirt that literally found its way from his studio into the paintings, has taken a toll on the works, with still-moist layers of paint beneath dry surfaces cracking and shifting to the point that helpless conservators need to exhibit some works flat. The unstable chemistry of the paintings has altered their appearance, most likely making them darker, leaving us only to guess at what caught the eye of earlier admirers. Jackson Pollock ranked Ryder as one of his influences, a prophet of sorts that served as the template for the isolated American genius painting in his own way and ignoring the popular trends. Sadly, we see Ryder as if through a glass darkly today, but the glimpses we do catch make him all the more fascinating.