Albert Pinkham Ryder / by Chris Hall

“Imitation is not inspiration, and inspiration only can give birth to a work of art. The least of a man’s original emanation is better than the best of a borrowed thought.”  Albert Pinkham Ryder.

Albert Pinkham Ryder was an American painter known as much for his eccentric personality as for his poetic, dark, and moody allegorical works and seascapes.  While his work reflects the subtle tonalist techniques in vogue at the time, his unique way of accentuating form gives his work a more Modernist feel.  Ryder's work would later become a heavy influence on Modernist painters, including the young Jackson Pollock.  Ryder was a poor craftsman and liked to experiment with his art materials.  As a result, paintings that were once described as glowing and jewel-like, have darkened, cracked, or even completely disintegrated.

Ryder was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1847, a bustling port connected with the whaling industry.  From here, Ryder developed his interest in the sea and all things maritime related.  In 1867, Ryder moved to New York City.  In 1877, he became a founding member of the Society of American Artists, a loosely organized group whose works did not conform to the academic standards of the day.  Beginning in the 1880's through the 1890's, Ryder frequently exhibited his work, which was generally received well by critics.  Sometimes he wrote poems to accompany his work.  Ryder's signature style is characterized by his broad, ill-defined shapes, or stylized figures situated in a dream-like land or seascape.  Often his scenes are illuminated by dim sunlight or a glowing moonlight cast through eerie clouds.

After his father's death in 1900, Ryder, already known as something of a loner, became an absolute recluse.  His artistic output declined, as he spent a lot of time re-working old paintings.  While Ryder was a recluse and did not seek out the company of others, he did receive company courteously and enjoyed telling stories about his art.  Visitors to Ryder's attic apartment in New York were struck by his slovenly habits.  Ryder never cleaned and his floor was covered in trash, plates with old food, and a thick layer of dust.  Ryder would have to clear a space for visitors to sit or stand.

While Ryder's creativity declined after the turn of the century, his fame grew.  Important collectors of American art sought out Ryder's paintings, and as Ryder no longer had an active interest in exhibiting his work, lent out their Ryder works to national art exhibitions.  Many Modernist artists began looking at Ryder's work with admiration, and in 1913, ten of his paintings were included in the historic Armory Show, which introduced Americans to Modernist avant-garde art styles, such as Cubism, Fauvism, and Futurism.  In 1915, Ryder's health deteriorated, and he died in March of 1917, at the home of a friend who was taking care of him.  He is buried at his birthplace, in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  Ryder completed fewer than two hundred paintings in his lifetime, most of which were completed before 1900.  He rarely signed or dated his work.  Despite his minimal output, Ryder is one of the world's most forged artists, with some experts estimating over one thousand forgeries.  

“No two visions are alike. Those who reach the heights have all toiled up the steep mountains by a different route. To each has been revealed a different panorama.”  Albert Pinkham Ryder.

Ryder's obituary in the New York Times reads, “[Ryder] was one of the most interesting artists America has ever produced.  Every picture that he painted was the result of years of reflection and experiment, and represented not only a deeply romantic temper of mind but infinite zest for perfection of craftsmanship.”  While Ryder might be “one of the most interesting artists America has ever produced,” he certainly did not have an “infinite zest for perfection of craftsmanship.”  Ryder used his painting materials without much care, an attitude that would later haunt him, as even during his own life his paintings began to fall apart.  He spent a lot of time in his later years trying to restore his own work.  Ryder often worked on his paintings for ten years or more, and he would build up layers of paint and varnish, applied on top of one another.  He would paint into the wet varnish or apply a fast drying, lean layer, over a slow drying, fat layer of paint.  Sometimes he would experiment, using non-traditional materials in his art, such as bacon grease and kerosene as paint mediums. Ryder's poor craftsmanship and his experimentation with materials and techniques resulted in unstable paintings that  grow darker over time, cracks readily, and that takes decades to dry completely.  Some of Ryder's work, once described as glowing and jewel-like, have completely disintegrated.

In a previous blog post I extolled the virtues of experimenting and championed a democratic approach to art materials, but with the disclaimer, “so long as it doesn't cause your project to physically fall apart.”  Ryder's laissez faire approach to art making should be a lesson on what not to do.  Experimenting is fine, but don't experiment blindly.  Knowing the rules of your craft is important if you want to prevent what happened to Ryder and his work from ever happening to you and your work.