A Wild Note of Longing: Albert Pinkham Ryder and a Century of American Art
On ViewNew Bedford Whaling Museum
June 24 – October 31, 2021
New Bedford, MA
New Bedford, MA is a town built on whaling, and it is amongst the cries of the seagulls, the humidity of the harbor, and the moodiness of the sea skies that Albert Pinkham Ryder spent the first 20 years of his life. Subsequently, he moved to New York City, where he would develop his most influential work, earning him the respect of many modern American artists such as Jackson Pollock, who considered Ryder the most important American master. It’s heartwarming, and a real rarity, to see so many works by an artist in his hometown—and in a whaling museum, which adds context to both Ryder’s life and the seascapes prevalent in his work. This exhibition, curated jointly by Christina Connett Brophy, Elizabeth Broun, and William C. Agee, and its accompanying catalogue give us valuable insight into the personal history of an artist who was extremely elusive during his life. Alongside Ryder’s works, we can also see works by artists who explored his legacy in a variety of forms and materials. These include Pollock, Arthur Dove, Thomas Hart Benton, Marsden Hartley, Bill Jensen, Richard Pousette-Dart, Ronald Bladen, and Katherine Bradford.
Even though he was well-respected during his lifetime, in the last century Ryder’s work has not been given the kind of institutional attention that many of his contemporaries receive—only three major shows have been undertaken. As with many artists who were misunderstood, it was other artists who first carried Ryder forward through the years. Including other artists alongside his works thus becomes all the more meaningful in comprehending his legacy, as Ryder was one of the first American artists to really challenge the medium of painting, using as few as four colors to create experimental, luminous, mystical works of art that despite their small size sometimes took decades to complete. He paved the way for American artists to experiment and paint freely, without having to abide by convention. Ryder’s experimental approach to painting has sometimes compromised the stability of his work, a fact that never bothered the artist: he accepted that his surfaces will age, crack, and wrinkle as much as any living organism.
Ryder’s images are unique because of the endless ways he treated, worked, and laboriously reworked the surface and texture of the painting to achieve a luminosity emanating from within. We could wonder whether, when working by the candlelight of the whale oil his hometown industry produced, Ryder longed for the golden, buttery, illuminating glow we observe in the bucolic Landscape with Sheep (ca. 1870), Spring (ca. 1879), and Shepherdess (early 1880s). Works like these reveal Ryder’s affinity for the painters of the French Barbizon school, such as Jean-François Millet and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot. Though New Bedford’s whaling industry provided light for many Americans, one cannot forget that in a time when electricity was not readily available, moonlight takes on a particular importance when trying to navigate in the dark. Ryder’s paintings of moonlight are true celebrations of the splendor of light perceived before one is once again plunged into darkness.
In Ryder’s Lord Ullin’s Daughter (before 1907) and Jonah (ca. 1885–95), we encounter a thick and wavy paint texture that could be mistaken for the velvety surface of the ocean itself. Bill Jensen has equated Ryder’s paintings to “living tissue,” and in these paintings the surface appears almost reptilian. In Jensen’s own work A Room of Ryders (Dedicated to Ronnie Bladen) (1986–88), which was also exhibited in Washburn Gallery’s 1989 exhibition Albert Pinkham Ryder: The Descendants, we can see subtle yellow, pink, green, and blue accumulating in a textured surface that speaks clearly to both Ryder’s color play in Spring and the stormy brushwork of Jonah, Lord Ullin’s Daughter, and Pegasus Departing (before 1901). Jensen describes Ryder’s process as one of “seepage”: paint layers, alchemical combinations of medium and varnish, and time allow his colors to seep into the canvas, producing a radiant image that flows directly from Ryder’s imagination. There is a video in a separate room where Jensen speaks personally about Ryder’s work, giving us insight into his own process and that of Ryder’s search for inner light. The use of white is prevalent and allows light to bounce back from within the painting, lending Ryder’s colors a distinct shimmer. Jensen’s own work, as well as that of Katherine Bradford, demonstrates a clear understanding of this near-magical effect of reflection. In similar fashion to Ryder’s paintings, their works attract the viewer like flies to honey.
The Lovers’ Boat (ca. 1881) is the most sensual painting in the show. Here, white paint is used just for the moon and a few strokes in the sky. In fact, for this work Ryder used only four colors: Prussian blue, earth yellow, raw umber, and lake madder, each employed in creative and imaginative ways. Most unusual and delightful is the luminescent and varnished crimson wood panel upon which the image is painted, a support that is at times visible, creating a shimmering and warm effect for the lovers sailing peacefully in a torrent of red hues. The work Landscape (ca. 1870) similarly alternates between thickened and thinned-out paint to reveal the canvas surface. The whiteness of the sky stands stark beside a tree in thinned burnt umber, leaving the weave of the canvas surface bare and transforming it into the tree’s foliage. Landscape - Woman and Child (ca. 1875) is a beautiful tessellation of oil: in its sky we can clearly see the amalgam of light blue, lavender, peach, white, and pale yellow. This work was most likely cleaned at some point, and the removal of layers of varnish has rendered the colors much more potent than what is typically found in Ryder’s murky, dark, and mysterious works. The sky converges at a point far on the horizon and transforms into the widening path where a huddled mother and child walk towards us together.
Ryder wrote a poem called “The Passing Song” from which this show takes its title, A Wild Note of Longing. As a seaport, New Bedford has a long history of families longing for whalers out on the waves, immigrants longing for home, and—like anywhere else—the longing of unrequited love. Longing can be felt powerfully in the figure on a horse watching a maiden pass like a mirage in the moonlit landscape of King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (by 1907), but the feeling is unmistakably soaked into all 23 works now on display at the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Portuguese-speaking immigrants had begun populating New England by the 19th century, adding to the cultural make-up of the whaling industry, such that today one can still hear Portuguese spoken in the streets. It is curious that the complex feeling of the sad state of longing, uniquely understood and identified by the single Portuguese word saudade, should have occupied Ryder’s thoughts in this poem. Ryder’s own longing for something more expansive and spiritual than his own experiences also, perhaps, finds its roots in the atmosphere and culture of his hometown. What we can say for sure is that these qualities of his work continue to compel artists to look inward for their own “inner vision” to this day.