The New Bedford Whaling Museum's Moby-Dick Marathon is an annual non-stop reading of Herman Melville's literary masterpiece. The multi-day program of entertaining activities and events is presented every January. Admission to the Marathon is free.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Melville and Albert Pinkham Ryder

Like Herman Melville, the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder was an artistic outcast who drew inspiration from the sea and lived in Manhattan in the second half of the 19th century. In addition, Ryder's paintings, like Melville's mature work, were largely unappreciated in his lifetime, to be rediscovered in the 1920s.

Melville moved his family to New York City in 1863, some 12 years after the publication of Moby-Dick.  Ryder (who was almost 30 years Melville's junior and was born in, of all places, New Bedford) moved to New York City in 1867 or '68.  Never marrying, he led a reclusive life.

Most of Ryder's paintings are relatively small, heavily worked, dreamlike and expressionistic.  They present nightmares to conservators because he had a habit of adding new layers of paint before the earlier layers had completely dried.  Even today, some of his works are still not thoroughly dry.  He disdained crowd-pleasing academicism and stubbornly pursued his private obsessions. 

One of Ryder's most Melvillean paintings is Jonah, in the Smithsonian's collection.  It has become so darkened over time that some details can barely be made out.  In the foreground swims Jonah, waving his arms, as the great fish bears down upon him (the creature's eyes and snout can just be discerned in the far right of the painting, about halfway up).  Up above, a transcendent God can be seen directing or sanctioning the course of events.  It would be hard to imagine a more fitting illustration for Chapter IX, "The Sermon."

I once asked the Ryder expert William Innes Homer if he thought Ryder and Melville knew each other.  He said that an acquaintance between the two men would certainly be no surprise, given their geographical proximity and their apparently similar artistic temperaments and interests.  But, he went on, as far as he was aware, there is no evidence that they knew each other, or even that each had any idea of the other's existence.

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