March 2, 2013


Tale Told by a Modern Romantic : JONAH' (C. 1885-95) BY ALBERT PINKHAM RYDER (SIDNEY LAWRENCE, 3/02/13, WSJ)

Ryder's most deeply affecting work is "Jonah" (c. 1885-95), his masterly portrayal of the biblical tale. Now the centerpiece of a gallery of other, smaller Ryders in Washington's Smithsonian American Art Museum, this explosively composed, dark-toned painting, measuring about 2½ feet by 3 feet within a hefty period frame, uses abstract design, clear storytelling and dense, obsessive paint to draw the viewer in. The rewards are many.

This is not Jonah in the belly of the whale, or "great fish," but a prelude to that biblical episode. A gesturing, folk-art-like God figure appears on the horizon in a blazing halo holding an orb and surrounded by angel-wing clouds. Raging below are the roiling contours of the fierce seas God has created to punish the prophet for defying a divine order to preach in the sinful city of Nineveh. Instead, Jonah has set sail in the opposite direction. Cast out by frightened shipmates, Jonah expresses terror, arms upraised, within the swells outside a bent, dark, roller-coaster vessel that creates a strong diagonal in the composition. On board, the shipmates huddle in fear. A gigantic wave threatens both to capsize the boat and to drown Jonah as the murky, bulbous-headed whale, mouth agape and eyes hungry, moves stealthily toward him. [...]


A grammar-school dropout with a history of vision problems, the affable, bearded Ryder loved literature and poetry, which he also wrote and recited, and the operas of Richard Wagner, whose swelling musical cadences can be sensed in many of his seascapes, including "Jonah." Ryder's youthful studies at the National Academy of Design, a grand tour of Europe in 1882 and the intimate tonal landscapes of painter friends in New York also had an impact.

But the sea was Ryder's true passion. Once he found his footing as an artist, he arranged his life so he could study its moods at night from city wharves and on ferry rides to and from New Jersey. On ocean crossings to Europe in 1887 and 1896, Ryder spent most of the time en route sketching the sea from the ship's deck, alighting only briefly in his destination, London, before heading home again. "Jonah" brilliantly reflects the artist's obsession.

Overwhelmed by Ryder's work, one contemporary critic called it "the only successful religious painting produced since the Renaissance."
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Posted by at March 2, 2013 9:18 AM

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