The River

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The River

United States, circa 1884-1894
Paintings
Oil on canvas
18 1/2 x 22 7/16 in. (46.99 x 56.99 cm)
Paul Rodman Mabury Collection (39.12.21)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

Ryder’s work is among the most powerfully visionary and formally expressive that our country has produced....
Ryder’s work is among the most powerfully visionary and formally expressive that our country has produced. So strong are his small paintings that Ryder’s life-work of only about 160 paintings has been sufficient to generate a posthumous reputation amounting at times to adulation. Although firmly based in naturalism, Ryder’s style involved the extreme simplification of elements and their arrangement in terms of an overall rhythmic force and harmony. Like others of his pure landscapes, The River is closer to naturalism than to the dramatic designs characteristic of Ryder’s literary subjects and nocturnal marines. The scale of the indistinct figures in the left foreground and near the center of the right edge of the painting suggests that they are staffage rather than specific literary characters. As a delicately colored daytime scene rather than his characteristically more emotional nocturnal or crepuscular views, The River also partakes more of the quality of a straightforward landscape, albeit with the visionary feeling that informs all of the artist’s works. Ryder never dated his paintings, and the unequal deterioration of different works adds to the difficulty of establishing dates. Ryder’s friend, the artist Charles Melville Dewey (1849-1937), suggested that The River could be dated between 1884 and 1894. He also indicated that the painting stood on an easel at Ryder’s bedside during his last illness. Because Ryder is known to have reworked his paintings again and again, it is difficult to determine how much of the final design dates from the period specified by Dewey. As is characteristic of Ryder’s work, scientific examination of The River reveals a substantially different earlier design. Infrared photography, which can show changes just below the surface layer, reveals changes near the center of the right-hand edge of the painting: there is a second ghostly figure, and the distinctly rounded, archlike shape of the dark area behind the figures suggests that it is the entrance to a cave or building (see illustration). These two figures probably represent an earlier placement of the two figures in the left foreground rather than additional figures relating to them in a narrative sense. The fact that the painting came into the possession of Ryder’s executor, Charles Melville Dewey, raises the question of whether The River may have been completed by Dewey, who had restored certain deteriorated paintings with Ryder’s approval and presumably with his advice. Perhaps he was the one who filled and inpainted the large cracks, work that appears to have been done before the painting was acquired by Paul Rodman Mabury in 1920. It was Lloyd Goodrich’s opinion that Dewey did not repaint the picture; he wrote to the museum in 1962, "I hasten to add that your painting seems to me entirely characteristic of Ryder in style and technique, and that it shows no evidence of having been tampered with."
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About The Era

The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture....
The late nineteenth century witnessed a growing cosmopolitanism and sophistication in American culture. Great riches were amassed by railroad tycoons and land barons, and along with this came the desire for a luxurious standard of living. Collectors filled their homes with European as well as American works of art. American artists, generally trained abroad, often painted in styles that were indistinguishable from their European counterparts.
Most Americans who studied abroad did so in the European academies, which promoted uplifting subject matter and a representational style that emphasized well-modeled, clearly defined forms and realistic color. Academic painting served American artists well, for their clients demanded elaborate large-scale paintings to demonstrate their wealth and social positions. With an emphasis on material objects and textures, academic artists immortalized their patrons’ importance in full-length portraits.
Academic painting dominated taste in Europe throughout the century. But in the 1860s impressionism emerged in France as a reaction to this hegemony. By the 1880s this “new painting” was still considered progressive. Mary Cassatt was the only American invited to participate in the revolutionary Paris impressionist exhibitions. Despite her participation and the early interest of several other American painters, few Americans explored impressionism until the 1890s. Impressionist painters no longer had to choose subject matter of an elevated character but instead could depict everyday scenes and incidents. Nor did impressionists have to record the physical world with the objective detail of a photograph. Artists were now encouraged to leave their studios and paint outside under different weather conditions. American impressionists used the new aesthetic to capture the charm and beauty of the countryside and the city as well as the quiet delicacy of domestic interiors.
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Label

Albert Pinkham Ryder is the great romantic painter of American art and, according to the historian Lewis Mumford, one of the most significant painters of the Brown Decades (1865-95), along with Thomas...
Albert Pinkham Ryder is the great romantic painter of American art and, according to the historian Lewis Mumford, one of the most significant painters of the Brown Decades (1865-95), along with Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer. Ryder, an eccentric and increasingly a recluse, created a shadowy world of dreams. His lack of concern for proper painting techniques and his use of such unstable materials as bitumen resulted in his pigments darkening and his paint surface cracking and sliding off the canvas. By 1920, when The River was acquired by Paul R. Mabury, it had deteriorated so much that its cracks had already been restored and inpainted. The present condition of The River is typical of Ryder’s art and in a way intensifies his visionary quality. Figures such as the one in the arched doorway at the right appear as phantoms, barely discernible at first glance. Though Ryder derived some of his themes from literature, music, and opera, most of his landscapes and marines were from his own imagination. His paintings were greatly admired by the first generation of modernists, who realized how much he had liberated American art from the materialism of the Victorian age. The softly modulated art nouveau pattern of swirling forms on the frame accords well with the insubstantial quality of the painted scene. The frame dates from the late 1910s. It was probably added to the canvas after the artist’s death, when the painting was for sale at the Chicago firm of Carson, Pirie, Scott and Co.; a label from this dealer remains on the frame’s back.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.