If one had to select three of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s paintings that best exemplify his interest in the ocean and spirituality, a logical starting point would be “Jonah,” his dark, foreboding painting inspired by the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale that incorporates both themes. Believed to have been painted between 1885 and 1895, and currently displayed at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, “Jonah” is a deeply spiritual depiction of Jonah’s travails while attempting to escape the inescapable. Ryder’s Massachusetts upbringing, with the omniscient Atlantic Ocean, provided him enduring images of the effects of storms on the waves, and the depiction of an almighty presence hovering above the storm-ravaged ship ferreting Jonah to Tarshish bespeaks the artist’s respect for religion while providing an image dominated by raging sea. “Jonah” provides the perfect introduction to Ryder’s interest in both subjects.
Another prominent Ryder painting is his 1887 work titled “The Flying Dutchman.” Inspired by the 17th Century myth of a ghost ship doomed to sail the seas in perpetuity, never reaching shore, “The Flying Dutchman” is crewed by sailors who portend destruction to all who encounter her. As with “Jonah,” it is a foreboding image dominated by enormous, storm-driven waves and a badly weather-beaten vessel, its occupants seemingly on the verge of being overwhelmed by a haunting presence. “The Flying Dutchman” is similarly influenced by Ryder’s passion for spirituality and the powerful forces of an ocean amidst a storm.
A third painting that combines the themes of the sea and spirituality, albeit in a much less blatant manner, is his “The Toilers of the Sea,” painted between 1880 and 1885 and held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This particular painting, as noted, lacks the other two paintings’ obvious spiritual or religious influences, but is nevertheless representative of Ryder’s convictions regarding the presence of omniscience forces and man’s struggle against such forces at sea. “The Toilers of the Sea” is believed to have been motivated primarily by the artist’s beliefs regarding a divine presence.
Finally, one could logically select “Christ Appearing to Mary,” which has nothing to do with the ocean, but is certainly representative of Ryder’s spirituality. Ryder’s painting depicts, as the title suggests, Jesus’ appearance before Mary Magdalene three days after the crucifixion. The subject matter and respect with which Ryder portrays this scene from the New Testament illuminates the artist’s sincere commitment to Christianity. As with Ryder’s other works mentioned here, “Christ Appearing to Mary” is on display in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.