I first experienced Albert Pinkham Ryder's work through slides projected onto a dingy classroom wall and tiny images reprinted in my college textbook on nineteenth-century American art. Needless to say, neither of these methods of reproduction did his work justice. It wasn't until I began working at American Art that I saw Ryder's paintings in person—up close and impeccably lit. Suddenly, these small, dark canvases were transformed into evocative and frequently complex scenes executed both tenderly and passionately.
Earlier this year, a generous donor, Robin B. Martin, gave the museum a haunting painting by Ryder—The Lorelei, a painting he received from his father years before. According to German folklore, the Lorelei is an evil seductress, much like the sirens of Greek mythology, who lives on a large rock above the Rhine River. She drives passing sailors to distraction with her music, causing them to crash their boats. The tale of the Lorelei became popular in the mid-nineteenth century when German poet Heinrich Heine (1797—1856) penned a poem about her, which a number of composers set to music. Ryder's image is based on Heine's poem and his friends reported that he sang "the song of the Lorelei" while working on this painting. The creation of this painting engrossed Ryder for a good portion of his career— he worked on it from the mid-1890s until his death in 1917. The "finished" painting might not even be immediately recognizable to his friends who had visited him in his studio, as he changed Lorelei's location many times. Today, the glazes he used to outline her bewitching figure have faded so much, that she is no longer visible.
Ryder's obsession with this painting may symbolize his realization that he would never find love. He became reclusive in his later years and only interacted with the outside world through a few of his friends, including fellow painter J. Alden Weir. Mr. Martin's father gave another of Ryder's paintings to the museum in 2005. This painting, called The Lovers' Boat, is a marked difference from The Lorelei. Here Ryder gives us a romantic evening where a boat sails calmly under the moonlight, instead of a boat being sucked into the whirlpools of an aggressive sea. The optimism about love Ryder may have enjoyed as young man was clearly lost by the time he painted The Lorelei. The Luce Foundation Center is a great place for us to highlight this new acquisition. We already have a case largely populated with Ryder's work and The Lorelei helps show the scope of his career.
In a letter to our museum director, the donor’s father wrote that, "Every one of [Ryder's] pictures gets better as one looks and looks, even the 'simple ones.'" Thanks to the Martin family, our visitors have another opportunity to look and look at two of Ryder's finest works to their hearts' content, and enjoy a much better experience than seeing them projected on a classroom wall.