The Night, the Light, and the Soul: Albert Pinkham Ryder’s Enchanting Moonscapes
By Maria Popova
“That best fact, the Moon,” Margaret Fuller called it. “No one ever gets tired of the moon,” Walt Whitman wrote down the Atlantic coast from her, exulting:
Goddess that she is by dower of her eternal beauty, [the moon] commends herself to the matter-of-fact people by her usefulness, and makes her uselessness adored by poets, artists, and all lovers in all lands.
Centerpiece of our most ancient cosmogonies, our most groundbreaking revisions of the universe, and our most haunting poems, the Moon has accompanied Earth for billions of years. That we don’t yet fully understand how it was formed — perhaps it was a wandering asteroid captured by Earth’s gravity, perhaps the fission of the young Earth made it spin so fast that a piece of it broke off and came to orbit it, perhaps, and most probably, a giant collision tore it off from the planet — only adds to its mystery and its romance.
Around the time the pioneering astrophotographer John Adams Whipple was capturing the first surviving photograph of the Moon, the reclusive painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (March 19, 1847–March 28, 1917) was rendering its romance and mystery in paintings radiating more feeling and subtlety than the literal depictions of photography could ever offer.
Ryder found inspiration both in his direct experience of nature and in iconic moonscapes across the history of creativity — plays and poems, operas and novels, from Shakespeare to Wagner to Hugo. Part of what made his painting so enchanting was his unconventional use of materials and techniques — candle wax, petroleum, non-drying oils, wet-on-wet painting. Visitors to his studio often marveled that his art seemed to “glow with an inner radiance, like some minerals.”
But, working before the age of modern chemistry, Ryder failed to anticipate the cost of this singular luminosity — the viscosity and light sensitivity of his substances were such that the paintings darkened over time.
And yet, although what remains of them today is but a mere ghost of the radiance that so enchanted his contemporaries, something about Ryder’s moody moonscapes still makes them more luminous and alive than any photograph of the Moon, for they were not a mere record of beauty but a portrait of a consciousness wonder-smitten by beauty — a living testament to William Blake’s koan of a pronouncement that “the Eye altering alters all.”
Couple with Japanese artist Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage woodblock prints of trees and the Moon, then savor the poetic science of the Moon, the tide, and the living shore and the strange story of the first Moon map.
Published November 8, 2023