11/16/10

Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917)

Albert Pinkham Ryder's earliest formal art training was with the noted portrait painter and engraver William Marshall, and between 1871 and 1875, he attended classes at the National Academy of Design. During the 1870s, Ryder moved
in an orbit that included John La Farge, J. Alden Weir, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Stanford White, nurturing his deep love of literature and art. In 1878, he was included in the list of founding members of the Society of American Artists, established in protest against the restrictive policies of the National Academy of Design, though in 1906 he was admitted as a member. After the turn of the century he gradually became more reclusive in his behavior, a condition that worsened until his death in 1917.
Throughout his career, Ryder maintained an interest in subjects derived from literature, poetry, and legend, especially themes of redemption and salvation, and of women in distress. Women who are the undeserving victims of fate or circumstance are the subject of some of Ryder's most powerful works, notably in Lord Ullin's Daughter (n.d., National Museum of American Art), based on Thomas Campbell's poem of the same name, set in Scotland; Constance (n.d., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), derived from Chaucer's "Man of Laws Tale7' in The Canterbury Tales; and Little Maid of Acadie (n.d., Mr. and Mrs. Daniel W. Dietrich, H), a character taken from Longfellow's poem, "Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie."
Roadside Meeting, a variation on this theme, depicts a horseman stopped in a glade, turning in his saddle to address a woman who stands with one hand protectively placed on her child's head. Although this painting bears no date, its overall blond tonality and reddish highlights are typical of Ryder's early works from the 1880s. With meticulously applied brushstrokes, Ryder built his composition, taking particular care in rendering the forms of man and horse. The artist's concern with equine form, a hallmark of his work, is readily evident on both the painting's surface and in its X-ray, and relates closely to horses found in several of Ryder's other paintings, notably King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid (n.d., National Museum of American Art). Roadside Meeting appears to have been adapted from a scene
in Sir Walter Scott's novel The Monastery, written in 1820, and set in Scotland at the close of the sixteenth- century religious wars with England. In a scene from Scott's novel closely corresponding to Ryder's painting, the English soldier Stawarth Bolton halts his horse to speak with Dame Glendinning, who fears he will take her children to be raised among the heathen English. In Roadside Meeting this encounter takes place under a grove of trees. The opening of a dark, Gothic portal is just visible at the far right, recalling medieval monastic architecture. Ryder made one significant alteration in the painting's composition, lifting the horse's head and neck from grazing to a semi-alert stance, thereby implying a more brief and immediate encounter. Although this encounter carries a note of tension, Ryder's empathy for strong women facing adversity lends an emotional quality to this work.
Ryder was not alone in his interest in Sir Walter Scott, who enjoyed great and consistent popularity in the United States long after his death in 1832, especially among children. The Monastery was the first of Scotts gothic romances, invoking the ideals of chivalry in a medieval setting, and its popularity coincided with the gothic revival in architecture and the decorative arts. British influence on American taste was subtle, but pervasive. With the publication of Charles Eastlake's Hints on Household Taste in 1868, gothic subjects gained prominence in the work of artists and craftsmen, ushering in the aesthetic movement. The writings of John Ruskin and the works of the Pre-Raphaelites presaged the general interest in Anglo-Scottish heritage that flourished in America during the late nineteenth century.
Ryder's interest in Scotland and its literary heritage was no accident. His primary dealer, Daniel Cottier, was a stained-glass artist, born and raised in Glasgow, who worked with Louis Comfort Tiffany and La Farge. Cottier cultivated a group of Scottish patrons, including one of Ryder's most important ones, John Gellatly. During the fifteen years he spent with Cottier & Co., Ryder was thus exposed to the Anglo-Scottish culture from which several of his major paintings emerged. Along with Roadside Meeting, Ryder's most prominent works set in Scotland are Macbeth and the Witches (n.d., Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.), and Scottish Castle (n.d., Tom Fidelo, Edinburgh), which may have served as a study for Macbeth, The Monastery (n.d Parrish Museum, Southampton, NX), and Lord Ullin's Daughter, based on the tale of a Scottish chieftain.
Interest in Anglo-Scottish heritage was an important component of late nineteenth-century American culture, a milieu in which Ryder was steeped from early in his artistic career. Among the complex influences permeating Ryder's oeuvre, Scotland played a significant, if understated, role in the paintings derived from his love of literature. In Roadside Meeting, Ryder has translated into paint the emotion vested in Scott's words, extracting the essence of the encounter to convey a larger truth.

Eleanor Jones Harvey

Artwork

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