by Christopher Benfey
A Wild Note of Longing: Albert Pinkham Ryder and a Century of American Art
at New Bedford Whaling Museum, MA
“American history is haunted by nightbirds in the nineteenth century,” Lewis Mumford wrote in The Brown Decades, his landmark 1931 study of Gilded Age culture. Chief among these nocturnal artists, for Mumford, was the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder, who was given to long, solitary nighttime walks in Lower Manhattan. Born in 1847, Ryder was a virtuoso of turbulent moonlit skies, ships lost at sea, and nightmare images—drawn from Poe, another nightbird, among other sources—that stick like burrs in the memory. In The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse), inspired by a waiter who killed himself after making a bad wager, a skeletal figure armed with a scythe rides a pale horse, while a menacing snake monitors his progress. “One might call Ryder the Blake or the Melville or the Emily Dickinson of American painting,” Mumford mused, “and thus define, after a fashion, one or another phase of his art; but the fact is that Ryder was Ryder. Like every great artist, he belonged to that rare class of which there is only one example.”
Ryder was admired by a small coterie of artists and discerning collectors during his lifetime. His darkly hallucinatory paintings occupied the central gallery at the epochal Armory Show in 1913, which introduced modern European artists like Gauguin and Cézanne to a wary American audience while also honoring native forebears. The Lebanese-American painter and poet Kahlil Gibran was so impressed with Ryder’s work at the Armory Show that he sought out the reclusive artist and drew a sensitive portrait, finding his head “very much like that of Rodin,” with whom Gibran had studied. Ryder’s work has continued to attract passionate adherents, especially among fellow artists. In 1944 Jackson Pollock wrote, with flat finality, “The only American master who interests me is Ryder.” The sentiment has been echoed over the years by other artists, including Alex Katz, who called Ryder “perhaps the best American painter ever.”
And yet Ryder’s current status seems uncertain. There is scant recent scholarship on him; college students familiar with Thomas Eakins or Winslow Homer may have only the vaguest notion of Ryder’s work, if indeed they’ve heard of him at all. Was he the Vincent van Gogh of American art, as some have suggested, his ecstatic brushstrokes shaking our inherited traditions to their foundations and opening up a new visual world? Or was he an overrated crank, a throwback to an earlier age, a cult figure long in need of debunking? Are his ravaged canvases—more damaged than others of a similar vintage and a challenge for any exhibition of his work—the record of bold experimentation, or are they symptoms of carelessness and ineptitude? An extreme example is Ryder’s spooky The Temple of the Mind, inspired by a poem in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” which has come to resemble, over time, the cracked and moldering walls of Roderick Usher’s doomed mansion itself.
Encountering such paintings, one might feel like Ishmael in the third chapter of Moby Dick, published four years after Ryder was born. On his way to Nantucket to enlist on a whaling ship, Ishmael is stranded in New Bedford, where he looks for a bed at the louche Spouter-Inn. In the entryway hangs a large oil painting “so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced” that Ishmael wonders whether “some ambitious young artist…had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched.” Peering more closely at the “boggy, soggy, squitchy picture”—depicting a doomed whale hunt, as it turns out—Ishmael revises his opinion: “Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant.” Many of Ryder’s paintings, because of his own risky practices or the depredations of time, can seem besmirched and defaced almost beyond recognition. But on sustained inspection these bewitching pictures can inspire the same mood described in Melville’s double take: an uncanny sense of the sublime and a determination to uncover their enigmatic meaning.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum, located in the whaling town where Ryder was born in 1847 and buried in 1917, has mounted an admirable exhibition devoted to his work and its impact on American art. The title of the show, “A Wild Note of Longing”—drawn from one of the ballad-like poems Ryder sometimes wrote to accompany his paintings—is meant to capture the emotional pull that he still exerts on painters, even if his appeal to scholars is for the moment diminished. Visitors to the show, which features Ryder’s paint-spattered easel in the middle of the gallery like the ghostly skeleton of the man himself, can make up their own minds about this unsettling artist.
Standing in front of Ryder’s spectacular Jonah, which he labored over for a decade, one may feel that this is indeed the sort of painting (in subject if not condition) that Melville was describing. In the midst of the swirling composition, a vessel resembling a whaleboat, almost bent in two, swoops down a giant swell. A leviathan eyes the lone man who has been thrown overboard, clutching at the air with his tiny, deftly drawn fingers, not waving but drowning. High above the horizon, in one of Ryder’s tremendous, tenebrous skies, is the presiding deity himself, surprisingly small and resembling Jonah. The isolated figures, here and elsewhere in Ryder’s mature work, recall Blake’s Job etchings. “I am in ecstasy over my Jonah,” Ryder wrote a friend in 1885: “such a lovely turmoil of boiling water and everything.”
Jonah is in strikingly good condition; its multiple layers have resulted in a surface more like porcelain than paint. Other works have been less fortunate. Ryder experimented with unstable materials—including tobacco juice, dirt from his boots, and way too much varnish—to get the unusual effects of tone and color that he was seeking. On one occasion he ran a poker from the fire through a canvas to convey the impression of a lightning strike.
He was an obsessive reviser of his own work, scraping and repainting over long periods. “The canvas I began ten years ago I shall perhaps complete to-day or to-morrow,” he once wrote. And when he felt pressured to meet a client’s deadline, Ryder would not hesitate to retaliate. A visitor to his cluttered Greenwich Village apartment—a hoarder’s haven of old clothes, ashes, mice decaying in traps, leftover food in pots, and his own half-finished paintings—once noticed a peculiar smell. Ryder had thrust old hair clippers under the hot coals of the fire and then raked it over a picture, leaving deep gashes. “He thinks he owns it,” he snarled, referring to the impatient buyer. “This will teach him who decides in such matters.”
Little in Ryder’s background prepares us for the extreme visions of his art. One of his three brothers, Edward, was in the Union Navy; another, with the hopeful name of Preserved, became a whaler. Too young for the war, too frail for the whaling ship, Pinkie, as he was known to family and friends, found his way into art. In a charming but perhaps not entirely reliable 1905 essay called “Paragraphs from the Studio of a Recluse,” he claimed that when his father, a hack driver sometimes employed at the Custom House,
placed a box of colors and brushes in my hands, and I stood before my easel with its square of stretched canvas, I realized that I had in my possession the wherewith to create a masterpiece that would live throughout the coming ages.
His mother wore the subdued clothes of the Quakers, who had followed Roger Williams out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to more tolerant lands to the southwest. The Quakers were strongly opposed to slavery, and New Bedford, where Frederick Douglass lived for a few years after his escape from slavery, was a center of abolitionist agitation.
Could the mystical Quaker doctrine of the Inner Light help explain, as the artist Bill Jensen notes in documentary footage that accompanies the show, the way Ryder’s moonlit marines often appear as though “there’s a light on inside the painting”? In the intense twelve-inch-square With Sloping Mast and Dipping Prow (the title borrowed from Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”), Ryder has oriented the curved ship and sails, and his brushstrokes, in a spiral that seems to emanate from the pulsating moon. As the Ryder scholar Elizabeth Broun notes, “the circular rocking motion is literally inscribed in the paint.” Flying Dutchman is an even more vertiginous composition, in which two ships, one real and one phantasmal, circle the glowing moon. In a poem written to accompany the painting, Ryder evoked its bipolar mood: “In the loneliness around/Is a sort of joy found/And one wild ecstasy into another flow/As onward that fateful ship doth go.”
Two events spelled the end of whaling, a predatory industry that involved, as Ralph Waldo Emerson put it on a visit to New Bedford in 1833, “chasing the poor whale wherever he swims all round the globe, that they may tear off his warm jacket of blubber & melt it down into oil for your lamp, & to steal from him his bone to make stays and parasols for ladies.” Substantial deposits of petroleum were discovered in Pennsylvania in 1859, and much of New Bedford’s whaling fleet was destroyed during the Civil War. As the town began its long economic slide, Ryder’s third brother, William, moved to New York, where he bought a restaurant and managed a hotel; the rest of the family soon followed him to Greenwich Village.
Ryder was twenty when he moved to New York, never to return to New Bedford. Plagued with eye trouble—the result, it has been suggested, of a botched vaccination—he failed the entrance exam of the National Academy of Design before being admitted on his second try. He sought additional instruction from the painter and engraver William Marshall, who had made portraits of Longfellow, the martyred Lincoln, and a run of Gilded Age presidents, but who was also known as a spiritualist; in Ryder’s words, Marshall could convey “the soul showing in the face.” Ryder’s early work reflects what Broun calls his “long apprenticeship” to antique drawing. He adopted the subjects—cows, shepherds, and overarching trees—of Barbizon painters like Jean-François Millet, occasionally introducing a female figure modeled on plaster casts of classical sculpture.
Even when Ryder was depicting an observed scene, he made changes based on memories or dreams. Midway through painting a haycart, he abruptly reversed the direction of the cart and substituted oxen for draft horses, leaving an unresolved work that reads like a double exposure. And then there are the more dramatic transformations. A favorite horse slowly morphed, in the much worked-over canvas he scarred with heated hair clippers, into Pegasus. Jonah is painted over a portrait of a woman, visible in an autoradiograph; Broun suggests the underlying image may have facilitated its composition. “I like my slow dreamy way with a picture,” Ryder wrote, “fancying thereby they have a charm peculiar or like self creation.” As Yeats wrote when friends complained of his frequent revisions, “It is myself that I remake.”
At some point, Ryder ditched realism for a more emotionally charged approach, which required a radical overhaul of his technique. In “Paragraphs from the Studio of a Recluse,” he writes that early in his career, when he was determined to paint nature faithfully, he would go “out to the fields” only to find himself “lost in a maze of detail,” his leaves “infinitely below the standard of a leaf.” Then, on a sun-drenched day in early summer, came his epiphany. The same scene, framed by two trees, suddenly settled into abstract bands:
Three solid masses of form and color—sky, foliage and earth—the whole bathed in an atmosphere of golden luminosity. I threw my brushes aside; they were too small for the work in hand. I squeezed out big chunks of pure, moist color and taking my palette knife, I laid on blue, green, white and brown in great sweeping strokes. As I worked I saw that it was good and clean and strong. I saw nature springing to life upon my dead canvas. It was better than nature, for it was vibrating with the thrill of a new creation. Exultantly I painted until the sun sank below the horizon, then I raced around the fields like a colt let loose, and literally bellowed for joy.
On another occasion, he compared himself to an inchworm at the end of a twig. “That’s like me,” he wrote. “I am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing.”
Ryder’s paintings, when he eventually relinquished them, found a ready market among a coterie of connoisseurs and collectors. He traveled to Europe, reading Poe while acquainting himself with the paintings of Constable and Turner. He suffered a breakdown of some kind toward the end of the century. His weight ballooned, perhaps because of diabetes or some other ailment. Increasingly confined to his squalid apartment, he hoarded things and he hoarded paintings. As his paint surfaces cracked over time, he welcomed the changes, railing against restorers and the “craze for clean-looking pictures.” “Nature isn’t clean,” he said. His death, like that of his fellow recluse Emily Dickinson, was ascribed to “Bright’s disease,” a catchall term, no longer in use, for kidney failure.
The last time Ryder’s paintings were assembled, for a 1990 retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the art critic Robert Hughes observed, “One may be quite sure that whenever it takes place, the next Ryder retrospective will be even less visible than this one.” John Updike was more damning: “This show will not come round again, if only because Ryder’s paintings are so fragile and festering that they are disintegrating before, as it were, our collective eyes.” A welcome surprise of the tightly conceived installation at the Whaling Museum is how good Ryder’s work looks.
One reason is that the organizers—including Elizabeth Broun (who presided over the 1990 retrospective), the art historian William Agee, and the Whaling Museum curator Christina Connett Brophy—have been able to assemble some of the finest surviving Ryder paintings, especially a cluster from the Smithsonian that includes such well-preserved masterworks as Jonah and With Sloping Mast and Dipping Prow. Another reason that Ryder looks so good in the big wood-paneled room in New Bedford is that his paintings are showcased with the work of twentieth-century American painters who in various ways drew inspiration from him.
In some cases, we are looking at clear lines of influence, although the curators prefer the more open-ended term “legacy.” The early modernists Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley found in Ryder a reliance on simplified forms that verge on abstraction (those “solid masses of form and color” Ryder mentioned) while maintaining a felt relationship to the visual world. Pollock’s postcard-size T.P.’s Boat in Menemsha Pond (circa 1934) attests his verbal praise of Ryder. Other works seem more like tributes. The pier and ghostly ship in Katherine Bradford’s superb Four Masted Full Sail (2013) could almost be a rediscovered Ryder; Bill Jensen’s exuberant A Room of Ryders (1986–1988) is an uncanny echo of the space in which it currently hangs.
In some ways, this seems an odd moment for a Ryder exhibition. From the time of his death, when the Met mounted a lavish memorial exhibition in his honor, well into the 1960s, when his status as an honored precursor of Abstract Expressionism seemed to guarantee his central place in the history of American art, Ryder’s stature seemed unassailable. But when the macho ethos of Abstract Expressionism lost its appeal, Ryder too began to slip from view. In the academy, meanwhile, a generation of art historians has preferred works with obvious social meanings to Ryder’s dreamlike symbolism. Homer covered the Civil War for Harper’s; Eakins’s anguished paintings of everyday life—his surgeons and other professional men, his isolated women—exude a palpable alienation. Ryder lived through one of the most fractious periods in New York’s history, fraught with labor unrest, economic depression, and political corruption, but there is no trace of these in his paintings. Compared to contemporaries like Eakins, he can seem to be an artist of a previous era, a mythological painter belonging to the Romantic generation of Delacroix and Gérôme—“the last gleaning of the harvest of 1830,” as Roger Fry described him—or a Pre-Raphaelite lost in America.
Ryder remains a wild card in American painting, and still has the power to take us by surprise. With his boldly abstract forms and startling paint surfaces, he could hold his own among the advanced French painters flanking him at the Armory Show. Broun compares the “hallucinatory and visionary effect” of Jonah to “that other startling celestial dance, The Starry Night,” while Agee remarks, “The only other artist of Ryder’s time that used paint in this way is of course Vincent van Gogh.”
The European painter Ryder most reminds me of, however, is the Symbolist Odilon Redon, who was also in the Armory Show and who reportedly admired Ryder’s work. Conceived in New Orleans and proud of his Creole roots, Redon drew on some of the same sources that inspired Ryder: Poe, Wagner’s operas, and French Orientalism. For American eyes, Redon, with his spectral flowers, black suns, and human-faced spiders, can make some of Ryder’s more extreme paintings—Flying Dutchman or The Race Track—seem accessible by comparison. It’s easy to imagine Redon illustrating Ryder’s self-portrait as an inchworm, “trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing.”
Meyer Schapiro, in his classic essay on the Armory Show, put it the opposite way, arguing that Ryder prepared American gallery-goers to open their eyes to Redon, Bonnard, and Cézanne:
Those who grasped the art of Ryder, one of the greatest of living [i.e., in 1913] American painters, a poetic solitary who saw nature in large mysterious patterns of light and dark, could be captivated by the French mystic Redon, and could approach those foreign artists who subdued details for the sake of strongly silhouetted forms.
Schapiro’s description of Ryder as a poetic solitary resembles something Hartley, who met Ryder around 1910, wrote: “At all times in his work one has the feeling of there having lately passed, if ever so fleetly, some bodily shape seeking a solitude of its own.”
Solitude is the theme of many tributes to Ryder by those who knew him. In a prose poem dedicated to him, written in the same ecstatic cadences that he employed in his best-selling book The Prophet (1923), Kahlil Gibran evoked a solitary genius and spiritual seeker: “Poet, who has heard thee but the spirits that follow thy solitary path?” Hartley’s 1938 portrait of Ryder, with a long beard and stocking cap, looks strikingly like another singular genius, Thelonious Monk. Such artists are among Melville’s isolatoes, each “living on a separate continent of his own.” Maybe Ryder, that confirmed nightbird, is bound to remain a solitary figure in American art, a periodic challenge to viewers
Christopher Benfey is an American literary critic and Emily Dickinson scholar. He is the Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke College.