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On moonlight

By Christopher Andreae / January 7, 1980



Great painters of moonlight are few and far between. Elsheimer, Samuel Palmer, Van Gogh -- who else? The list is extraordinarily short. But certainly the American 19th-century romantic, Albert Pinkham Ryder, must be included. What Ryder uniquely found in moonlight was a total change in forms that might be quite familiar or unexceptional in sunlight. Moonlight is full of hints of the unknown, the unexpected, the unexplored -- good material for an artist who said he was "trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing."

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"Moonlight Cove," on one level, is a kind of thrilling boy's story picture -- full of exciting mysteriousness and the likelihood of smuggling exploits and other dark melodramas. Narrative is never far from Ryder's imagination. But on a perceptive level, this picture, along with many of his nighttime paintings -- in which the paint is as thick as the feeling is intense -- is profoundly true as an image or memory of moon-effect.

It might be complained that it is difficult, even impossible, to see this picture in reproduction. One could add that in the original it is no less obscure because of the cracked condition of the paint. But we must realize that a kind of obscurity is what Ryder is concerned to paint. What he depicts as visible and present is in itself something difficult to see, an impene[Word Illegible] darkness. Photographic reproduction in monochrome [Word Illegible] lost the large, odd formation of the clouds -- the ocean deeps -- the almost invisible hull of the boat, indistinguishable from its shadow/reflection, the looming, whalelike land mass -- even the heightened atmosphere.Everything resolves into a few strange, bold silhouettes, through which that indefinable, pervasive moon-brightness breaks. Everything is a contrast of dark and light, all detail is swallowed in the unrecognizable forms, the pallid and intense quality of the all-but-colorless light.

Moonlight is a kind of nonlight, but it does have its own specific, observable qualities. Ryder is recorded as having walked around at night, moon-studying in New York. For him the moon was the same in Bronx Park as it would have been in the imaginative context of Wagnerian opera or Shakespearean verse. He'd take the ferry to New Jersey when the moon was full, and walk all night, returning, in his words, "soaked in moonlight."

His paintings of moonlight, like Palmer's and Van Gogh's, are visionary. They have the character of dream and memory. It is difficult, after all, if not impossible, to sit down and make direct paintings of the moon, as Monet painting his haystacks.

Perhaps this is one reason the Impressionists were not moon painters. But Ryder seems, nevertheless, notably accurate in his evocation of moonlight. Above all, it perfectly suited his aim -- as he explained -- not to become "the slave of detail" and to "express his thought . . . not the surface of it."

"What," he asked, "avails a storm cloud accurate in form and color if the storm is not therein?" Somehow he persuades us that the moon is also undoubtedly inm his pictures of it.