Over the years, when I’ve been asked who my favorite American painter is, I have consistently and unequivocally replied with Albert Pinkham Ryder.
In the past- reaching back to my undergraduate studies- I have written critical works focused almost exclusively on continental European art. I’ve decided to break with that tendency to discuss Pinkham Ryder because I find the current state of discourse about his work to be lacking. Specifically, his marked and unique link to European trends has often put him on the peripheries of the Symbolist cannon, while leaving him somewhat of an anomaly in the American painting world. This has lent the status quo of Pinkham Ryder criticism a sense of uncertainty. I hope to apply a concerted and definitive lense to what can be said of his work with certainty. To those ends, I will focus strictly on his paintings.
I have been working on a series of critical essays on Pinkham Ryder, and I wanted to reveal some of the structure of my approach to his work here, in this precís.
Albert Pinkham Ryder was such an interesting character that much of what one reads in the art history world about him tends to cover his persona and lifestyle: he was a hermit (though not an unkind or unfriendly one) who lived in a secluded yet grossly disorderly manner. We can imagine him being described as a “hoarder” by today’s standards. His painting habits were considered no less odd than his living conditions, even by contemporaries- his paintings often darkened and cracked within only a matter of years, prompting him to attempt restorations of some in his later years. He is and was a prime target for plagiarizing and forgery, and commentary on this matter is eminent in discussion of his current legacy.
My approach will discard as much of the above as possible. I will analyze his work piece by piece, endeavoring to delve to the heart of each work guided by the text of the work alone to what extent such is possible. For what is lacking in discussion of Pinkham Ryder’s work is an earnest critique of the subjects at hand, on their own terms.
To a limited extent, I will examine Pinkham Ryder’s work as a bridge to continental Gestalt that transcended mere trend following- namely, the unique manner in which he evoked both the Symbolist impulse and a distinct “modernism” in his enthusiastic contemporary community of collectors and critics.
For the most part, I will apply critical tools that also apply to the Symbolist movement. His tendency to reference classic, popular Symbolist tropes was overt, with paintings such as Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens and The Flying Dutchman. This potentially cosmetic link to the broader Symbolist context is not the extent of his engagement with it. It is that tendency to place the trope (the “symbol,” in Symbolist parlance) at the very heart of the image that defines Symbolism itself. The labor of the Symbolist was to strategically situate the symbol as a touchstone- a marker at a crossroad or a fork in the road of aesthetic experience- to serve as a point of departure for the viewer into a deeper and more personal state of ineffable spiritual or psychological exploration. Pinkham Ryder was a savvy and studied employer of this Symbolist mode, and that, among many other factors, places him squarely within their camp.
In discussions of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Symbolist bonafides, there are typically two approaches: to look at his biographical and circumstantial engagement with European trends and to focus more narrowly on the specific visual language utilized in his art. I will focus on the latter approach, for both consistency with my broader enterprise of close-reading his works and because it avails more varied and nuanced avenues of critique. There is a strong potential for the former approach- the biographical one- to dissolve on further inspection: Pinkham Ryder’s remoteness from Paris and the Symbolist nomenclature-with its trappings of occasional reactionary, occultist, and effete sensibilities- makes him odd company with the likes of more recognizably Symbolist personae of Sâr Peladán and Stéphane Mallarmé. Further, he did not stick exclusively to more canonical Symbolist themes, subjects, and visual styles. Still, there is enough in his paintings to tie him to the broader Symbolist tendency or impulse, if not necessarily to the narrower circle of nominal “Symbolists” that congregated in France and Belgium.
The area I will leave mostly untouched, beyond his biographical story, will be his place in the American art context. I will not seek to answer whether or not Pinkham Ryder was an artist of a discrete and unique “American” context. Whether or not his association with European thought displaces him from the more explicit current of a native “Americanism” is beyond the purview of my work, as fascinating and crucial as that question is. I emphasize that it is out of no contempt for that line of inquiry that I leave it to my peers to examine- it is simply beyond my expertise and capabilities at this time. As a student of European art primarily, it would seem unfair to try to determine what is and what is not unique to America and its distinct art world.
I look forward to many conversations on Albert Pinkham Ryder, and I hope you feel welcome to both engage in that conversation and offer any suggestions for specific works for me to cover in my critiques.