Unreal Nature

April 28, 2015

What His Mind Made Out of It

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:50 am

… There were paths through this rubbish to the door, the easel, the fireplace, and to his bed.

This is from Albert Pinkham Ryder: Painter of Dreams by William Innes Homer and Lloyd Goodrich (1989):

… he enjoyed many associations with his fellow artists and others in the world of art, criticism, and literature and with whom he formed close and lasting friendships.

… What was Ryder really like? From those who knew him we hear the same adjectives over and over again: gentle, courteous, shy, kind, generous, otherworldly, impractical, sensitive.

Ryder’s traits of self-sufficiency, otherwordliness, and freedom from conventions were expressed in the way he kept — and viewed — his living quarters. We know that by 1896 he was living in rented rooms in an old house at West Fifteenth Street, in a drab neighborhood in Chelsea, just north of Greenwich Village. It was, as Charles Fitzpatrick reported, “one of those peculiar houses that attract professional people of small means.” Ryder’s quarters at the rear of the third floor (sometimes identified as the second floor) consisted of a large, high-ceilinged parlor, with a fireplace, and a small adjoining room in which he slept. He did not have a proper studio or even north light, most desired by artists; the house was on the south side of the street and his two windows faced a back yard with trees.

Ryder_1905
Ryder in 1905

[line break added to make this easier to read online] Ryder rhapsodized about the view: “I have two windows in my workshop that look out upon an old garden whose great trees thrust their green-laden branches over the casement sills, filtering a network of light and shadow on the bare boards of my floor. Beyond the low roof tops of neighboring houses sweeps the eternal firmament with its ever-changing panorama of mystery and beauty. I would not exchange these two windows for a palace with less a vision than this old garden with its whispering leafage — nature’s tender gift to the least of her little ones.” Although Ryder had thus romanticized the appearance of this yard, a clear-sighted visitor recalled that it was “draped with clotheslines and washings, and filled with ash barrels, garbage cans and rubbish.”

Ryder_Death_smaller
The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse), 1895-1910

In a similar vein, others recounted Ryder’s favorable responses to certain examples of cheap popular art. The painter Paul Dougherty reported that Ryder once said to him: “Paul, I have the most beautiful thing you ever saw.” Ryder pulled from his pocket a worn newspaper clipping showing “a photograph of a girl in a tooth-paste advertisement.” Dougherty said he thought that “probably Ryder did not really see the tooth-paste advertisement at all, but only what his mind made out of it; that the advertisement was simply a springboard for his imagination.”

Kenneth Hayes Miller had two similar experiences. One concerned a lamp in the hallway of the building in which Ryder lived, “a terrible affair, all decorated, with wires strung with little pink beads.” Whenever Ryder passed by, he would say, “How pretty.” Miller also told the story of J. Alden Weir cleaning Ryder’s apartment when the ailing artist had gone to the hospital. In the process, he had thrown away “a little plaster head, a cheap and tawdry thing.” Ryder always resented this, according to Miller, because “evidently he saw something beautiful in it.”

Ryder_Moonlit_Cove
Moonlit Cove, 1890

All reports agree that his living quarters were in a state of incredible disorder. The house agent came once a year to see about repairs and painting, but Ryder would not let him in, so that his rooms were not painted or repapered all the years he lived in them. Wallpaper hung in long strips from the ceiling. He never threw anything away, and the floor became piled two or three feet high with every kind of object: old newspapers and magazines, discarded boxes, ashes, old clothes, soiled collars, empty bottles, unwashed dishes, eggshells, used tubes of paint, and dirty brushes. Over everything lay the dust of years. There were paths through this rubbish to the door, the easel, the fireplace, and to his bed. [ … ] Fitzpatrick went on to say: “He slept on a cot, but not being able to keep it clean, he abandoned it and slept on the floor. He had a fur rug given to him by Col. Wood on which he slept for some years until it was eaten up with the moths.”

… With few responsibilities, not even that of keeping up appearances, he needed little to live on. Management of money was a deep mystery to him. Checks and cash were left lying around his rooms. Once his painter-friend Horatio Walker asked him if he had any money, and Ryder replied that “there was some on paper in the cupboard.” After rummaging around he produced a check in four figures, months old.

… Although Ryder was often portrayed as a dreamer — unworldly and even otheworldly — his letters show that he had another side. Reading them, we are struck by his common sense, his practical way of dealing with day-to-day problems, and even his awareness of current political issues. In the letters, too, he expresses great warmth and affection toward his friends, though undoubtedly, as stated earlier, opening himself up more in the written word than he was able to do in person. Ryder’s letters reveal an educated and polite individual who valued close, loving, and trusting ties with a small circle of friends.

Ryder_The_Dead_Bird
The Dead Bird, 1890-1900

All images, above, are from Wikipedia.

-Julie

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