In our onboard, mental history of art, which we each develop, we are not in the habit of giving American artists much in the way of a leadership role in the development of Modern Art at least until after WW I and often not until after WW II. For the most part this is a fairly accurate mental picture, but this is not to say there weren't some artists in this country, even as early as the last couple decades of the nineteenth century that, while perhaps not leaders in any sense of the word, were still doing work that, minus its historical background, could easily pass for some of the Modern Art being done as much as FIFTY YEARS after it's date. The painting, "Toilers of the Sea" comes to mind, and its artist, Albert Pinkham Ryder. The painting was done in 1882.
The work is so heavily identified with Ryder it's often the only thing people think of when his name is mentioned. For those unfamiliar with his work, it's a seascape, the horizon of which is set in the lower half of the painting, a glowing moon with it's yellowish halo glows in the sky while the silhouette of a boat with a single triangular sail labors mightily to make its way against the surf. Except for the suggestion of a few clouds in the sky and the foamy surf, there is little in the way of detail that has not been simplified away in a work that approaches abstraction so closely it's not unlike what Joseph Stella, Charles Demuth, or Georgia O'Keefe were doing in the 1930s. And though it's not typical of the artist's work in general it's this rich, thickly painted, abstraction that makes him an important link between the academic tradition (which he more often adhered to) and the Modern Art which he was to influence.
Born in 1847, in New Bedford, Massachusetts, as a child, he had a few lessons from an amateur painter, but when the family moved to New York, he not only was able to study at the National Academy, but fortunate enough to make several brief trips to Europe as well. And though his presence in Europe during the 1860s and 70s would put him in the midst of the Impressionist era, he seems to have been academically oriented. However, his personal style was so strong that more important than any artistic influence he might have picked up, was a love of Gothic literature and the Scotch-English flavor his work acquired, such as seen in his 1880 painting, "Roadside Meeting," or his 1888-91 effort, "Siegfried and the Rhine Maidens." A colleague of Louis Tiffany, Stanford White, John La Farge, and his dealer, stained-glass artist Daniel Cottier, Ryder was a romantic at heart, working on the same painting incessantly for years, layering colors and adjusting his compositions until often the paint weighed more than the canvas and frame combined. But it is not his thick paint or heroic subjects for which Albert Pinkham Ryder is remembered, but his ability to distill his compositions to their most elemental essence and his willingness to paint for emotional impact rather than academic detail that has endeared him to the legions of Modern artists whom he has influenced.