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Albert Pinkham Ryder: 1847 - 1917

The sea was an important element in Albert Pinkham Ryder's life as it was in Winslow Homer's. Ryder was born in the whaling port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on March 19, 1847. There he lived untill he was 22, when his family moved to New York. Having shown an aptitude for drawing at an early date, he studied in New York under William E. Marshall, a portraitist, engraver, and former pupil of the French painter Thomas Couture. At 24, Ryder entered the American National Academy of Design.

After he had finished his studies he lived a quiet, solitary life in New York, creating out of his imagination and his dreams an intense, visionary art that contained not the smallest reflection of the city life around him. Even the paintings based most closely on nature exhale a sense of mystery. Nor was Ryder a literary painter, though literary sources provided titles for many of his works. His scenes from Shakespeare and Wagnerian cycles are deeply subjective interpretations of old stories. In them, as in all his works, the design is coherent and the pictorial harmony is strong.

In his 70 years Ryder traveled very little apart from rare trips to Europe: a month in London in 1877; an English tour five years later with his friend the art dealer Daniel Cottier; and a journey to France, Holland, Italy, Spain, and Tangier with the sculptor Olin L. Warner. Ryder took little notice of the contents of European galleries, glancing cursorily at the old masters and paying little attention to contemporary trends. More to his taste were the two Atlantic crossings that he had made with a sea captain friend, and the nights he spent on deck observing the sky and the sea. Walks at night in New York provided many of the strange backgrounds and stormy skies that appear in his paintings.

Perhaps it is true to say that the work of Washington Allston, the first American painter to evolve for himself an artistic vocabulary for the expression of an independent, personal vision, was to some extent the precedent Ryder followed. Ryder himself had no followers, but his work was not so much akin to the Romanticism of the 19th century as to the new plastic freedom of the 20th.

He never dated his paintings. He would often work on one for years. Thus their total number, about 160, is small, and few are on a sizable scale or even finished. In any case Ryder matured slowly, so that the first exhibition of his works, in 1873, did not attract much attention. He was a founder of the Society of American Artists. This was the most avant-garde institution in America at the time, and for about 20 years the opponent and rival of the National Academy of Design. The two societies merged in 1906. During the 1880's Ryder exhibited with both, but he did not become an associate of the Academy until 1902, nor an Academician until 1906. Meanwhile his friend Cottier interested collectors in his work.

After about 1900 Ryder's output almost ceased; most of his time was spent in reworking old pictures, many of which had already deteriorated as a result of his unsound techniques. By now, however, he was in demand. He was included in the New York Armory Show of 1913, at which much avant-garde European art was displayed. Two years later he became chronically ill, and died on Long Island on March 28, 1917.

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