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Albert Pinkham Ryder

American Painter

Albert Pinkham Ryder Photo

Born: March 20, 1847 - New Bedford, Massachusetts, USA

Died: March 28, 1917 - New York City, New York, USA

"What avails a storm cloud accurate in form and color if the storm is not therein?"

Summary of Albert Pinkham Ryder

Albert Pinkham Ryder was the only American painter whose work was hung in the same gallery as the honoured European masters of the modern, Cézanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Manet, at the landmark 1913 Armory Show in New York, the exhibition that virtually defined modern in art and introduced the term avant-garde into the way we talk about art. Yet Ryder's approach to his own work was deeply personal, inventive, idiosyncratic, obsessive, and disregarding of "isms." As an intuitive extender of American Romanticism's reach, Ryder's interest in form and tone as means to evoke feelings and moods drew him towards abstract fields of dense but muted color. His paintings are always pictures of something but their abstract qualities also deeply appealed to the modernist interest in surface and the non-pictorial. For Ryder himself, the paintings of eerie light flooding scenes of other-worldly strangeness were vehicles for transporting himself and the viewer to somewhere beyond everyday rationality. Today many of Ryder's canvases and panels have deteriorated and the gradual sinking of his illuminating vision back into literal obscurity is one of the great ironies of modern art.

Key Ideas

One of Ryder's most notable artistic heirs, American abstract painter Bill Jensen, has said of his own work that it seeks to "put people in touch with areas of their psyche they're not normally aware of. ... If you can bring people in touch with that for just a second, then you have a different way of looking at the world." This perfectly captures Ryder's influence on many artists, including Marsden Hartley, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Jackson Pollock, who saw the importance of Ryder's different way of looking at the world and were deeply affected by it.
Ryder's characteristic method was to empty out unnecessary detail from the spaces he was painting and replace them with layers of moody light and color that tended towards abstractionism, but he never abandoned the representational. So, Ryder's paintings are always pictures of something but he showed later artists how this "something" could include the seeping of other-worldly feelings through the materiality of the visible world.
Ryder's single-mindedness, modest lifestyle, shyness, and sometimes eccentric behavior, all contributed to the myth of his being a recluse. In fact, he had a small circle of devoted friends, who loved him for his gentleness and imagination, and he valued these friendships and the correspondence in which they engaged, not least because they helped him deal with life's practicalities, in which he was temperamentally uninterested.
Ryder could not draw well, in a conventionally technical sense, and a slight impairment of his sight since a childhood illness, though its influence on his work is sometimes exaggerated, made him more interested in tonal effects than detail. His moonlit and marine subjects in particular, such as small boats being tossed at sea, benefit from the resulting evocation of atmosphere.
Ryder's other-worldliness, which was a personal characteristic as well as a feature of his art, was not that of a mystic. Instead, Ryder believed that painting in its material effects could create deep experiences of contemplation, imaginative arousal, and absorption. This belief is detectable in the work of later artists such as Mark Rothko and Agnes Martin, on whom Ryder was not a direct influence but whose work inherited an American painterly interest in sublime surfaces to which Ryder undoubtedly contributed.
Though not consciously an adherent to Romanticism or Tonalism, Ryder can be understood as instinctively and temperamentally drawn to their principles and was an inspiration for later Abstract Expressionists. He also had several Symbolist friends who influenced his own ideas.
Albert Pinkham Ryder Photo

Albert Pinkham Ryder was born in 1847 in New Bedford, a growing port in Massachusetts then known for its role in the whaling industry. Both his parental ancestors were of old Cape Cod families, and it is presumed that many in the family had been sailors. Albert, the youngest of four sons, began attending a public grammar school for boys, but had to quit due to poor eyesight resulting from a vaccination that went wrong. This visual impairment was never completely healed, and Ryder may have perceived colors and depth in a slightly altered way, contributing to his distinctive style.

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