Albert Pinkham Ryder was born in 1847 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he attended a public grammar school for boys and began to paint, but impaired vision, the result of a faulty vaccination, prevented him from continuing his education. After the Ryder family moved to New York in 1870, his application to the National Academy of Design was rejected, and he was admitted only after a period of study with the portraitist and engraver William E. Marshall (1837-1906), a former pupil of Thomas Couture. Although Ryder first exhibited at the Academy in 1873, and continued to exhibit there between 1881 and 1888, it was not until 1902 that he was elected an associate member, and he was made a full member in 1906.
Ryder quickly allied himself with some of the most progressive figures in American art. In 1875 he participated, along with John La Farge and William Morris Hunt, in an exhibition of works by artists who had been rejected by the conservative National Academy. The event was sponsored by the New York branch of the English firm of interior decorators Cottier & Company, and its owner Daniel Cottier became Ryder's dealer and played an important role in promoting the artist's career. In 1877 Ryder visited The Netherlands and spent a month in London with Cottier. That same year, along with Louis Comfort Tiffany, La Farge, George Inness, Olin Levi Warner, and J. Alden Weir, he became one of the founding members of the Society of American Artists, and exhibited with the group regularly until 1887. During the late 1870s Ryder painted screens, mirror frames, and furniture panels that link him to the Decorative Movement.
In 1880 Ryder took a studio in the Benedick Building on Washington Square East, where he lived and worked for the next decade. Perhaps influenced by his new friendship with the Symbolist painter Robert Loftin Newman, Ryder abandoned the Barbizon style pastoral landscapes upon which he had established his reputation in the 1870s, and began to paint dramatic and emotionally charged subjects based on classical mythology, biblical incidents, poetry, plays, and Wagnerian opera. He occasionally wrote poetry to accompany his paintings. This transformation was also brought about by his visits to the major art museums of Europe and an excursion to North Africa with Cottier and Warner during the summer of 1882. By the middle 1880s Ryder had the support of influential critics, and attracted a number of important patrons. He made brief visits to London in 1887 and 1896. Around 1900 the increasingly reclusive and eccentric Ryder ceased producing new compositions and began to rework and repair existing paintings. He was awarded a silver medal at the Pan American Exposition at Buffalo in 1901, and was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1908. His work appealed to the new generation of American modernists, and ten of his pictures were included in the 1913 New York Armory Show. After his health began to fail in 1915, Ryder moved to Elmhurst, Long Island, where he died in 1917.
One of the most enigmatic figures in the history of American art, Ryder was an imaginative and innovative painter who worked in the late nineteenth century visionary tradition. Long considered an isolated and uniquely American phenomenon, his personal idiosyncracies overemphasized, it has only recently been recognized that Ryder was keenly aware of European art and techniques. His chronological development is impossible to trace because he never dated his works, rarely signed them, and obsessively reworked his compositions after they had been exhibited or sold. His unorthodox technical procedures, by which he strove to achieve rich, dark colors and enamel-like surfaces through multiple layers of glazes and pigments, left his works unusually susceptible to changes and deterioration, so it is difficult to determine their original appearance. Although he produced only 160 pictures, his works were widely forged, and some authentic ones were altered by others after his death. Ryder never had any pupils, but he exerted a powerful influence on his contemporary Ralph Blakelock, and a generation of younger artists such as Arthur B. Davies, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, Walt Kuhn, and Kenneth Hayes Miller. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Goodrich, Lloyd. Albert Pinkham Ryder. New York, 1959.
Broun, Elizabeth. Albert Pinkham Ryder. Exh. cat. National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., 1989.
Homer, William Innes, and Lloyd Goodrich. Albert Pinkham Ryder, Painter of Dreams. New York, 1989.
Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 93-94.