Albert Pinkham Ryder's small, intense, and brooding paintings - most popularly his sea-and-moonscapes - punctuated late 19th-century American art with an almost primeval romanticism. They were concentrated, deeply subjective. With hindsight, we can see them as foretelling the expressionism of such 20th-century painters as Emil Nolde and Jackson Pollock (who openly admired Ryder).
Ryder studies have grown apace in recent years, and a more balanced view is being presented of an artist whose work and character almost invited myth-building. In particular, the writing of Elizabeth Brown, director of the National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., shows Ryder to have been more conscious of both old and contemporary masters than is often suggested, and by no means some merely instinctual artist - almost a naive.
Consciously endeavoring to evoke the inner secrecy of old-master paintings, Ryder would accumulate, as a painting developed (sometimes over a long period), layers of paint, glaze, and pigment that have resulted in various degrees of crackle and collapse. "Moonlight," however, is in a good state of preservation.
It was thinly painted on the back of another painting. The mahogany panel they shared was afterward split. Ryder painted "Moonlight" in 1887 during a sea voyage from New York to England and back. "He was proud of this painting," Dr. Brown observes, "writing that 'a remarkable light shone out of it.... A light seemed to come through the sky from way back.' "