How does Alfred Pinkham Ryder's painting, Temple of the Mind, reflect his religious views?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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American Classical School painter Kenneth Hayes Miller, who attributed influence on his art to fellow American painter Alfred Pinkham Ryder, considered himself a religious man while considering Ryder his spiritual mentor. Miller, himself a religious man, held the opinion that Ryder embodied the high ethical and moral values that he himself revered as a religious man (The Phillips Collection).

While Ryder is not characterized as a religious man himself; he is characterized as a spiritual man who embodied the truth of religious, ethical and moral belief. It was said of him that his religious sense was not encompassed by doctrinal conformity but rather by intense and profound belief in religious principles. It is difficult to find sources clarifying this because most biographical material centers upon either his elaborate multilayer palette knife technique or upon his declining years, the unproductive years following his father's death, during which his eccentricities caused much doubt about his mental state and which then led into his eventually fatal decline in physical health. Yet the characterizations of him that are prevalent might suggest he may have held Deist sensibilities, as did other Americans like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and Mark Twain.

Ryder's works had as a central thematic motif the spiritual, or religious, struggle between humans and superhuman powers, such as are represented by the three unseated Muses and the jaunty cloven-hooved faun in Temple of the Mind. Due to his slow and laborious palette knife technique, Ryder produced only 165 paintings in his lifetime, though a plethora of forgeries followed his death; Temple of the Mind is a Ryder original thus representative of his spiritualistic ideas and effectively representative of his conception of humans caught up in supernatural conflict. In a letter Ryder wrote in 1907 to Professor John Pickard, he explains that the three Muses in the right foreground plane (Ryder opted for the planar technique that layered progressively distant planes in parallel to the painting's plane) are symbolic of the "finer attributes of the mind" and that they have been dethroned by the faun who is symbolic of a pagan pantheon of gods and goddesses (i.e., the negatively interfering supernatural powers) and who is jauntily stepping gayly down the steps (to a mid-ground plane) while snapping his fingers in glee over his victory:

The finer attributes of the mind are pictured by three graces who stand in the center of the picture: where their shadows from the moonlight fall toward the spectator. They are waiting for a weeping love to join them. On the left is a Temple where a cloven footed faun dances up the steps snapping his fingers in fiendish glee at having dethroned the erstwhile ruling graces. (Alfred Pinkham Ryder, ArtMagick.com)

 It is possible to say that Temple of the Mind reflects Ryder's religious-based views by illustrating his spiritualistic belief in the supernatural and in the conflict between humanity's high "attributes of the mind" and in the spiritual core of humanity's nature.

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