American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience

By Barbara Novak | Go to book overview

12.
Albert Pinkham Ryder

EVEN WITH A THOUGHT

Thomas Cole had complained that the American public wanted "things, not thoughts." Albert Pinkham Ryder ( 1847-1917) can be said to have made thought into a thing, into a substance built up of innumerable layers of paint. In his awareness of the expressive potential of paint, Ryder recalls the romanticism of Allston earlier in the century. Both artists have links to the coloristic tradition of European art, from the Venetians through Rubens, into Delacroix's romanticism, Impressionism, and ultimately into Expressionism.

But if Ryder's "expressionist" use of paint to materialize and fuse ideas and feelings belongs to a distinct Western painterly tradition, his emphasis on contour, on circumscribed forms, can be seen as relating to the linear ideographs with which the American tradition began, as does his reduction of the picture to a few large unbroken shapes. Even the surface inclinations of his art (two-dimensional in its representation of external space, though three-dimensional through accumulation of paint) relate as much to the conceptual planarism of the American tradition as to similar inclinations in late nineteenth- and twentieth-century European art.

In his intuitive grasp of the painting as a self-contained structure, an autonomous object, Ryder was more genuinely a part of the international developments of his age (of Post-Impressionism and early Expressionism) than any other American of his time, with the possible exception of Whistler, whose formal experiments were so knowledgeably attuned to decorative abstraction. Thus, his art comes into clearer focus at a point of many intersections, a focus that is, however, difficult to preserve when dealing with it (Ill. 12-1).

Ryder materialized his ideas very slowly, and there was even an extensive pre-natal process of conceptual germination: "I've carried the idea for some of my pictures around in my mind for five years before I began to put them

-211-

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