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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Full Moon

Last week I was sitting at my desk one afternoon and thinking about what to write for my next blog post.  My eyes darted around my cubicle, momentarily resting on various objects: postcards of some sculptures by Daniel Chester French from my trip to Chesterwood several summers ago; photos of my nieces and my brother’s black lab; a lovely print of an painting of a woman drinking tea under cherry blossoms; library books on George Inness, Edward Hopper, and William Merritt Chase.  Nothing held my interest. Then I looked at my calendar. I was excited to get a calendar this year that recorded the phases of the moon.  And my blog post just happened to be due the week of the full moon.

Moonlight (1887)
When I think of the full moon and art I immediately think of Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917). Ryder was an important late-nineteenth century painter and he painted several paintings of the moonlit land and sea.  In her 1989 monograph on Ryder, Elizabeth Broun writes, “Collectors and critics have come to consider the moonlight marine as Ryder’s personal emblem, although such paintings constitute only a small part of his oeuvre...But if there are few in number, they still hold a special place, for they are like conversations with the soul. The longing that permeates Ryder’s paintings of women and his urge toward the unattainable become the yearning of the boat for the moon...”

Four of these moonlit scenes are in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum:  Moonlight, With Sloping Mast and Dipping Prow, Flying Dutchman, and The Lover’s Boat.

The Lover's Boat (ca. 1881)
When it was exhibited in 1881 at the Society of American Artists, Ryder accompanied The Lover’s Boat with one of his own poems.  The poem begins,

In splendor rare, the moon,
In full-orbed splendor,
On sea and darkness making light,
While windy spaces and night,
In all vastness did make.

Seeing a Ryder painting reproduced online or in a book is in no way a substitute for seeing one in person.  Broun discusses the often sculptural qualities of his work and how this was achieved:

The Flying Dutchman (by 1887)
“Everything temporal evaporated as Ryder worked over the image, sometimes for months or years. Layers of glaze accumulated as before, but now a dense, creamy white pigment full of coarse-ground crystals and lumpy impurities were liberally used as well. Forms took on palpable substance over a long period of work, so that even water and clouds present a sculptural aspect.  Whenever a moon appears, it is a full moon and the thickest part of the paint film, projecting in relief as if modeled. Positive and negative shapes, light and dark, balance each composition, like contending forces of good and evil.”

With Sloping Mast and Dipping Prow (ca. 1880-1885)

Besides the four moonlit paintings at the American Art Museum, the museum owns several other paintings by Ryder. There are also many other Ryder resources listed in the Smithsonian Collections Search Center.  His paintings and their current locations are listed in the Inventory of American Paintings.  The American Art Museum's Photograph Archives contain historical photographs of works by Ryder. Broun’s publication, along with several others, is held in the Libraries.  The Archives of American Art holds several items related to Ryder.

If you are interested in artistic representations of the moon, many other artists are known for their moonlit scenes, including Ralph Blakelock, Charles Burchfield, Childe Hassam, Winslow Homer, George Inness, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Dwight William Tryon. All of this information can be found by searching the National Art Inventories.

So when you look up to see the full moon tonight, I wonder if you will think of Albert Pinkham Ryder.  I know I will.

--Nicole Semenchuk, Research and Scholars Center, American Art Museum

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