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Albert Pinkham Ryder

Albert Pinkham Ryder: Albert Pinkham Ryder

Albert Pinkham Ryder


1847 - March 28, 1917

In 1913, the Association of American Painters and Sculptors organized the International Exhibition of Modern Art, now known more simply as the Armory Show. As the first large-scale exhibition of modern art in the United States, the show introduced Americans to the European avant-garde of Post-Impressionists, Fauvists, Cubists and Futurists.  Included in the same galleries as the Cezannes, Van Goghs and Gauguins were ten paintings by an eccentric American artist with poor eyesight and little formal training: Albert Pinkham Ryder.

Ryder was born in 1847 in the port city of New Bedford, Massachusetts, a center of the thriving whaling industry. He began painting when his father “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 through the coming ages" (from "Paragraphs from the Studio of a Recluse" as quoted in Albert Pinkham Ryder by Elizabeth Broun).

His poor eyesight, caused by genetics or a faulty vaccination, seemingly precluded him from advancing past public grammar school. The family moved to New York sometime between 1867 and 1870.

His first training in art came in the early 1870s when he studied under portraitist William Edgar Marshall and at the National Academy of Design. At this time he met Julian Alden Weir, an Amerian Impressionist who would become a lifelong friend, and Daniel Cottier, an interior decorator who would become Ryder’s dealer and play an important role promoting Ryder’s work. Ryder made four trips to Europe in his lifetime, the first in 1877. That same year he became a founding member of the Society of American Artists, a loosely organized group seeking an alternative to the traditional and conservative National Academy. Other members included Weir, John LaFarge and Robert Swain Gifford; Ryder would exhibit with this group until the late 1880s.

While legend holds Ryder was a hermit who created his paintings alone and without influence, his relationships with fellow artists and his exposure to European art indicate otherwise. While it cannot be disputed Ryder was shy, slovenly and eccentric – he waded through waist-high piles of trash in his apartment and was rumored to roam the city alone at night to look at the moon and the ocean – he spoke eloquently about his art and was said to be courteous and affable to visitors and patrons.

His paintings from the 1870s, often pastoral scenes he may have encountered in his childhood, were tonalist Barbizon School-style landscapes. An association with symbolist painter Robert Loftin Newman, with whom he shared a studio, may have influenced Ryder’s shift in the early 1880s toward the moody and dramatic compositions for which he is now most famously known. Scenes from the Bible, mythology, literature or opera provided recurring inspiration for Ryder, though his work went far beyond mere illustration and instead were realized versions of his own imagination.

He synthesized form into the three masses of sky, foliage and earth, using broad brush strokes to craft organic shapes rather than fully articulated figures or objects. (A style, perhaps, uniquely suited to his poor eyesight.) His paintings are characterized by a dreamy luminosity he achieved through experimental use of glazes, richly colored pigments and multiple layers of paint, often thickly applied. Unfortunately his methods, which also included irregular drying times between paint layers, caused severe craquelure and fragility to his paintings as they aged.

This painting provides a quintessential example of both Ryder’s technique and form. Like in many of his paintings, the scene is illuminated by bright moonlight filtered through ominous clouds to achieve an almost ethereal atmosphere. Ryder seemed keenly attuned to the tension between man and the immense power of nature, particularly the sea, and visited this theme often.

Around the time of his father's death in the early 1900s, Ryder practically ceased painting. He is known to have completed less than 200 hundred paintings in his lifetime, most during the period of 1880-1900. He rarely signed and never dated his paintings; this, combined with a style that is easily copied, makes Ryder one of the most forgeried American artists. He spent the last decades of his life re-working existing paintings. By that point, however, he had achieved a great measure of critical success and his paintings were sought out for both personal collections and public exhibitions, including the historic Armory Show.

Organized by artists as a way to exhibit works often ignored or rejected by the establishment, The Armory Show stunned Americans who, up to that time, had been exposed only to realistic art. Matisse’s “Blue Nude” and Marcel Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase (No.2)” caused such a sensation even Teddy Roosevelt purportedly exclaimed “That’s not art!” Wildly publicized critical acclaim (and disdain) drove more than 250,000 people to visit the show during its stops in New York, Chicago and Boston.

Ryder’s work, with his loose and imaginative, simple yet expressive style, was in good company with the Europeans, with which it shared many of the same characteristics. His inclusion in the show, which still stands as a turning point in American art, speaks to the respect his contemporaries held for his work and how they saw it, like the show itself, influencing the future of American modern and abstractionist art.

Ryder died March 28, 1917, at the home of a friend who was caring for him. A memorial exhibition of his work was held at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1918.

Last updated: March 18, 2015

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