Better Than Nature

The Art of Albert Pinkham Ryder 1991

an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum September 21, 1990–January 7,

Albert Pinkham Ryder

catalog of the exhibition by Elizabeth Broun
National Museum of American Art/Smithsonian Institution Press, 344 pp., $29.95 (paper)

Albert Pinkham Ryder

by William Innes Homer and Lloyd Goodrich
Abrams, 256 pp., $45.00

“The Art of Albert Pinkham Ryder,” at the Brooklyn Museum until January 7, 1991, is a wonderful study in the problematics of painting, and should be attended by all who take an interest, morbid or not, in American art. This show will not come round again, if only because Ryder’s paintings are so fragile and festering that they are disintegrating before, as it were, our collective eyes. We are all aware that some paintings hold up better than others, and that few canvases executed before 1950 look quite the same now as they did to the artist the day he finished them, but the Ryder show brings home with a vengeance the mortality of this particular art. A section of the show is devoted to the chemistry of deterioration, with grisly enlargements of Ryder’s cracking, shrinking, wrinkling, bubbling, sagging, darkening, alligatoring agglutinations of pigment. His paintings are subject to “traction crackle,” “varnish slide,” and “perennial plastic flow”; they suffer from an ongoing chemical activity that insurance companies call “inherent vice.”

It is all Ryder’s fault. Though the basics of stable, enduring oil painting were established by Jan van Eyck early in the fifteenth century, and though abundant technical wisdom existed in the art schools and ateliers of the late nineteenth. Ryder in his reckless, betranced quest for poetically lustrous surfaces committed every chemical sin in the book, mixing his oils with alcohol, bitumen, and candlewax, painting “wet-on-wet,” applying rapid-drying paints (flake white, umbers, and Prussian blue) on top of “slow driers” like lamp black and Van Dyke brown, pouring on varnish straight from the bottle and painting on top of the still-tacky surface. In his later, increasingly reclusive years he became pathologically reluctant to part with his work and trash alike; his tacky paintings were piled in the dusty jumble of his apartments and sometimes damaged underfoot. To display canvases to a visitor, he would wipe them “with a wet cloth to bring out their depth and transparency,” the evaporating water blanching the paint and glazes. He also wiped with kerosene and was fond of melting colors together with a hot poker. Alarmed patrons found him reclaiming his paintings and ruining them; on one occasion in 1905, when the collector John Gellatly aggravated Ryder by pressing him for delivery of a commissioned work, the painter ragefully, in the presence of a visitor to his studio, Sadakichi Hartmann, heated up an old hair-clipper in the coals of his fire and ran it “criss-cross through the picture surface, leaving deep gashes as if made by the prongs of a rake.” X-rays of Pegasus Departing do indeed show angry parallel scorings.

The fullest account of the vandalism Ryder wreaked on his own works can be found in the chapter “Albert P. Ryder: His Technical Procedures,” which the conservator Sheldon Keck contributed to William Innes Homer and Lloyd Goodrich’s Albert Pinkham Ryder. But the room in the Brooklyn Museum devoted to this problem is vivid enough, displaying the pustular black ruin of the…

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