It has been some years since I had seen a painting by Albert Pinkham Ryder at the Cleveland Museum of Art. This time I couldn’t persuade myself to finish the paintings in the first gallery of American Art before I went into the second.
So I passed works works by Ashcan artists, decorative arts objects and other things I usually spend a great deal of time with to revisit The Race Track (Death on a Pale Horse) by Albert Pinkham Ryder.
For some reason the painting is larger than I remembered it, but just as striking. I commented recently that I like paintings that are human. We can of course convey ideals in artwork, or aesthetic ideas, but art engages me most when it conveys some aspect of the human condition.
Here we are presented with an image of a ghost or skeleton on a racehorse rounding a track, sickle in the air it would seem to be chasing something. Yet around it will go only to return to where it was, sickle in the air, still on the attack. In the foreground is a snake looking up at the horse and rider passing that point on the track.
The story behind the painting is that one of Ryder’s friends bet $500 on a horse, the horse lost. The artist’s friend committed suicide. The snake likely represents temptation and the ghost rider, death. Looking at the painting, all lines keep you inside. They bring you back to the same position. Like death and temptation, there is no escape. But what about the thoughts that might go around in our mind after such an event? The bet, and the suicide, leaves the victim circling in eternity and the mind to continually ponder why.
Not many museums actively display works by Ryder. Is is said to have painted only about 200 paintings in his lifetime. He reworked the Racetrack for years and is said to have been very reluctant to part with it. He rarely signed and never dated paintings, a fact which lead to the great number of forgeries of his work. Many are said to be in museums.
You might call Ryder’s work tonalism, but his treatment of the forms has brought many critics to refer to his works as modernism. Ryder is frequently mentioned as an important influence on Jackson Pollock. In 1913, ten of his paintings were shown together in the historic Armory Show.