- Albert Pinkham Ryder: Painter of DreamsOur PickBy William Innes Homer and Lloyd Goodrich
- Albert Pinkham RyderOur PickBy Elizabeth Broun
- American Symbolist Art: Nineteenth-Century Poets in Paint Washington Allston, John LA Farge, William Rimmer, George Inness, and Albert Pinkham RyderBy Dianne Johnson
- Albert P. RyderBy Lloyd Goodrich / 1959
Important Art by Albert Pinkham Ryder
A contemporary critic remarked about Ryder's early work that a shortfall in drawing skills was made up for by the overall effect of his "masses embodying a poetic impression". The figure in this very early painting is certainly an example. Like The Spirit of Spring from the same period, a circle of illumination accompanies a serene figure by a tree, but everything is softly defined, and the overall impression is of a contemplative mood rather anything more clearly delineated. This softness in the forms was a technique Ryder derived from some of the artists associated with the Barbizon school of French painters, but he was recognized as different from early on, another critic calling his work "dream-pictures." The artist's natural world may have been around his childhood home in New Bedford, Massachusetts, but in a painting like Spirit of Autumn the natural seems to be more dream-like than real, and the overall effect is delicate, restrained, and introspective.
Ryder in his twenties and early thirties, living in New York, was a shy and likeable man with an attitude to women that an acquaintance described as "chivalrous." He would never marry, and it is tempting to see in these early paintings an other-worldliness that seems celibate in its detachment; Ryder's figures less physical bodies than presences in a landscape of imagination. Ryder's Tonalism in the making, his use of color for atmospheric effect, was less the self-conscious adoption of a style shared with others than Ryder's own very personal interest in giving his restrained palette a life of its own, beyond its purely representational capacities. His cows and sheep from this early period are pulpy material presences of color in the landscape. So too, the figure here is an assemblage of color masses on the surface of the panel. What both intrigues and presages the achievements of his later, mature work, is the intense feeling of a presence in the image.
This is a relatively small painting, about a foot (or 30cm) square. The size adds to its feeling of concentrated intensity. The painting shows Ryder's characteristically sure-handed compositional skill. Although the little boat is cresting a wave, the moment feels frozen in time because the strong compositional balance holds the pictorial forms so firmly in place: the shape of the boat and sail, the strong horizon line, the placement of the moon and clouds, the contours of the waves. Painted with layers of subtle color over a monochromatic base, the painting is moodily somber. The painting that we see today, however, is darker than in Ryder's day due to some deterioration of the pigments. So as we look at it, we should imagine a little more green than dull yellowness in the olive-greens and more punch to the moonlight. Ryder, who was not quite as reclusive as some accounts suggest, often spoke admiringly to his small circle of friends about his love of Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot's paintings, leading to Ryder being associated with Corot's Tonalism, or the use of a muted range of colors. Many American artists were exposed to this technique when they visited Europe to study painting after the Civil War, so Ryder was not alone in being attracted to it. But his palette here is much more severe than Corot's, his application of it highly personal, his vigorous brushwork coarser, and his vision distinctive.
One journalistic commentator wrote about seeing "bushy-bearded" Ryder in a New York library lugging a pile of art books off to a quiet corner, including a book about J.M.W. Turner. There are certainly parallels between Turner's approach to the sea and Ryder's in this and his other "marines". Ryder's painting could almost be a small section cut from Turner's Fishermen upon a Lee-Shore, in Squally Weather, the fishing boat rising on the wave, the luminosity in the clouds beyond. However, Turner's waves are detailed and sweep towards us in a space that has perspectival depth where Ryder's have a more stylized bulk and loom across a flatter surface. One way of thinking about this is that Turner was an obsessive observer of the actual sea in all its moods while Ryder's sea is an inner vision of tumult and the search for respite. When the painting was exhibited in New York in 1884, Ryder wrote this for the catalogue: "Neath the shifting skies, O'er the billowy foam, The hardy fisher flies to his island home."
The painting's 1915 purchase by the Metropolitan Museum of Art secured Ryder's reputation and led directly to his growing popularity, while also attracting the attention of many forgers over the years.
In a 1905 interview for a magazine, Ryder talked about an early, formative moment in the development of his technique when he had felt lost in a "maze of detail" and threw his brushes aside, squeezed big chunks of paint onto the canvas, moulded them with a palette knife, and realized that he could sculpt vigorous forms onto the surface of his paintings. This painting shows off the resulting boldness and simplicity, applied to one of the several subjects Ryder took from what we would now call "high culture," in this instance a Shakespeare play. Two small figures from As You Like It appear in the bottom left corner, like the "donor portraits" that were sometimes included in paintings of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, small renderings of patrons or other significant persons the artist wished to acknowledge. So, Ryder acknowledges here the Shakespearean characters who gave him the inspiration for his landscape but the landscape itself is all Ryder; the dark, bulky forms of trees billowing like clouds into the glow of the sky, the perspective heaping the layers of the composition onto a space that feels materially dense behind the dwarfed couple. The space is compositionally anchored around the dead tree to the left of center. Probably painted from memory after visits to Bronx Park in New York, as Ryder was not a en plein air or outdoor painter, the dead tree has much more presence in the painting than the human figures.
The two figures and a similarly placed tree feature in Shakespearean Scene: As You Like It, painted by Francis Hayman around 1750. There is no firm evidence that Ryder knew this painting, but its depiction of Celia and Rosalind is strikingly similar and the tree is compositionally placed in the same way. Ryder's dead version of the tree introduces a discordant note into a scene that might have beenlight-hearted Shakespearean wistfulness; the tree's gnarled presence, reaching into a bulbous mass of cloud, suggesting something much bigger than the young women's worldly romantic preoccupations. Where Hayman staged his version with mannered theatricality, Ryder subsumes the players' concerns into a natural world that funnels compositionally towards a luminous distant hill beyond the forest. Ryder's drama, as always, is other-worldly.