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The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

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OCT 2021 Issue

A Wild Note of Longing: Albert Pinkham Ryder and a Century of American Art

Albert Pinkham Ryder, <em>Pegasus Departing</em>, by 1901. Oil on canvas mounted on fiberboard, 14 1/4 x 17 1/4 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Gellatly.
Albert Pinkham Ryder, Pegasus Departing, by 1901. Oil on canvas mounted on fiberboard, 14 1/4 x 17 1/4 inches. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Gellatly.
On View
New Bedford Whaling Museum
June 24 – October 31, 2021
New Bedford, MA

Bill Jensen said that Ryder’s paintings are made of stardust, and I take his point. By all accounts, his palette was limited and he experimented with glazes and homemade varnishes. So how does the homespun become “stardust”?

The answer is the depth of his desire. William Agee says that early on Ryder was a fairly conventional painter of New England landscapes. Grazing cows or horses in golden tones of that peculiar combination of yellow and green that evokes Sienese painting, and the light of what Samuel Palmer called “the Ancients.” “Nature” was that thing out there, that field, that tree, that sky.

After his trips to Europe, during which he must have been exposed to Blake, Turner, the operas of Wagner—the Romantic European imagination—Agee says his horses became Pegasus. In other words, the mythic entered his imagination, as did the power of narrative. Being an avid reader of poetry and Shakespeare, he plunged into the power of the mythic story. We know from contemporary psychology that myth is a slippery area, overlapping dreams, personal biography, family relations, and art. The difficulty is finding a suitably flexible language and process in order to evoke the otherworldly. In other words, the “how” has to broaden and deepen to dance with the “what.”

Our view, those of us who deal in the persistence of the Romantic Imagination, is that Ryder’s images arise through the paint itself, as if the archetypes exist and only need a medium in order to reveal themselves. Thus our job is to get our strategizing intention out of the way. This is why Pollock says of Ryder that he is the only American painter of interest. While not exactly “true,” this is the foundational myth of the Romantic Imagination: that material itself contains the life force and is an equal partner in the dance of Imagination, Psyche, Eros, and Image. The shift from representation to metaphor, both in subject and object, is the essence of Ryder’s contribution.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2021

All Issues