Monday, December 29, 2014

Albert Pinkham Ryder, The Flying Dutchman

Albert Pinkham Ryder, The Flying Dutchman, c1887
14.25 x 17.25 in.

Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) was an American painter, who was just as well known for his temperamental and eccentric character as for his dramatic paintings.  While Ryder's style borrowed from European Romantic and Realist painting, he developed a style that was very different from the conventions of European art, and in some ways prefigured Modernism.  Ryder's painting is marked by high drama, thick application of paint, and subtle variations in color while retaining a detailed attention to form.  Many of his pieces are moody landscapes that often have an ominous quality.  Ryder also frequently painted rural and animal scenes, as well as demonstrating a keen interest in myth, such as in Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens.  Ryder was just as devoted to the process of painting as he was to the result, which makes him unusual for his time and a forerunner of Modernists.  For Ryder, much of this effort was devoted to the perfect appearance of his paint, which he always tried to make look as though it was glowing from within. The Flying Dutchman is a perfect example of Ryder's commitment.  The paint was worked over repeatedly to achieve the perfect look of thick, churning waves.  The Flying Dutchman was of course a legendary ghost ship that was doomed to wander the oceans.  In the version Ryder worked from, the captain was cursed for hubris when he attempted to round the Cape of Good Hope in adverse weather.  Frozen in time, he would only be allowed to make port if his son brought him a piece of the True Cross.  The son can be seen in the small boat in the foreground hailing his father's ship; already an old man himself, he has been unable to release his father from God's curse.  Ryder conveys the intense drama of the scene with his exceptional balance of color and form.  In addition to the thick impasto of the waves, they have been rendered with subtle variations in blue, white, and black, to create realistic and highly imposing waves.  However the top portion of the canvas emerges quite luminous, with clouds and sunset of such delicate color that it's hard to imagine them over such stormy seas.  With the titular ship in the distance against the glowing sky, the painting becomes a powerful mediation on defiance, powerlessness, and the pursuit of achievement and beauty.

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