|The Racetrack, oil, 1890s, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Cleveland Museum of Art|
May 14th, 1888
As a reporter, one of his skills was to eavesdrop. Alone and listening in on the conversation between the scruffy recluse and the waiter, eating his meal quietly while feigning to read the paper, no one would suspect anything. If they glanced over they would probably take him for a travelling salesman, not a reporter baiting the hook. The long bearded guy had to be the artist who often dined alone, an eccentric according to art dealers and the few patrons, that helped prep him ... for what? An article about a slob who already, in his estimation, was an incurable romantic, a reputed mystic; one whose paintings looked like they were created using as much tobacco juice as he did oil paint. He really didn't know. All he knew was that he seemed to be going backwards into a romantic pool of... of... What kind of headline could he use?
literature Inspires Painting
How boring could that be, like Shakespeare, who he disdained - too old fashioned. he wanted to write about today - like this modernist thing he was interested in and everyone had an opinion on, something tilting on the edge of an experimental convulsion. New York, his New York, was about to take the painting mantle from Europe. He could feel it in his bones. So why Ryder? And oh, why now?
So, as he listened to the conversation between the painter and the fidgety waiter, while dining at the Hotel Albert, East 11th Street, he wondered who else would want an assignment like this. Someone he could pass it off to. Rumour had it the guys place was a pig sty. Could hardly even get around his apartment, debris piled high bracketing a well worn path leading to two places - the bedroom and the easel. But still they talked about him with a sort of child like reverence. Almost like he was a simpleton genius. But for now, he was wary, noting that there were others like this Ryder guy in his past, not so simple in the end really. He would reserve judgement for now. Too much ground to cover yet. He didn't like messes, and wished if he had to meet him, well, maybe he could meet this pack rat on neutral ground - perhaps at this very hotel, over a nice meal like he was enjoying now. But today wasn't the time - he just wanted to listen and observe the American romantic. Get the painter's brother William, the manager, to arrange it. That's what he would do.
But then that tingle thing happened... that sensation that starts around the back of the neck and migrates up the head to the top of the scalp. Something about a race, Hanover being a sure thing, and so much was on the line. Five Hundred bucks to be exact, a lot for a waiter. Hmm... Oh, he was a betting man himself and always pondered his options in terms of luck and prophesy, not logic - that bane of all bets gone awry. But this time his bet was on a story, not a race. He would arrange to meet Ryder. Of that he was now sure. But first, the Brooklyn Handicap and the Dwyer brothers and Mr. Cassat's pride and pet.
May 15th, 1888
He read the article in the paper the next day, May 15th, 1888. The Bard, recovered from a life threatening illness was favoured, but most thought Hanover a strong competitor especially owing to a "heavy and cuppy track", an inelegant term for a slow track with no rain to make it sloppy. The New York Times predicted as follows:
1st The Bard, 2nd Oriflamme, and 3rd Hanover.
May 16th, 1888
The next morning he sipped his tea and queried about that fidgety waiter. He was told he should be in but has not shown up for his shift yet. The excuse wasn't convincing so he lingered to... well maybe in the hopes of interviewing the poor sot. Aware now that Hanover came in second, and happy he only put down a meagre bet himself, he wanted to see what a man really looked like who just lost five hundred bucks, and waited on tables for a living. The poor dupe. That's when the Concierge was approached by a detective who informed him of what? A suicide? In the hotel... no someone from the hotel. Someone working at this hotel. Someone who was a waiter at this hotel. Someone who was fidgety.
Ryder dropped by to see his friend the waiter too. Maybe to console him or maybe because the outcome of the race impressed him enough to return to the hotel. It was death by gun shot the evening before, so he heard Ryder mutter to himself as he passed by him, and out the door on route to East 11th Street.
The Armory Show, 1913
Fifteen years later, the excitement he felt at the Armory show was palpable. His prophesy regarding modernism was manifest. His editor leading him toward assignments he could identify with. He never did interview Ryder, preferring to not initiate an article owing to a pang of conscience - perhaps because of the waiter's suicide, but also to just leave the recluse to his pile of debris, sagging/sliding paintings (owing to the use of candle wax as a medium), and encrusted unfinished works. Besides, why initiate a potential pilgrimage of worshippers to the recluse's garret. It really wasn't fair to the old codger, who as he was set straight by Earnest Lawson, really did believe the artist needed to be left in simplicity and peace.
However, the Armory catalogue did not lie to him. There it was, gallery P - Albert Pinkham Ryder, American. So, he went over to see the mostly moonlit jewels, witnessed by several people more in a state of rapt meditation, than the impatience that sometimes is experienced when viewing paintings in a crowd. One person stood out though. He wore a well tailored brown suit and told him his name was A.T. Sanden - what the initials stood for he never discovered. He did find out with some seasoned prying that the man was a collector, that he currently owned a painting of Ryder's he had never heard of. "What's it called?" he said. A.T. Sanden said the title was The Racetrack but he preferred to call it Death on a Pale Horse. "Can I see it some time?"
The Hotel Albert
He's much older now. Modernism has seen the likes of Duchamp, Picasso and Matisse. But as time works on the best of his memory, he still returns vividly to that day when Sanden showed him the visionary results of Ryder's cloud that he could not throw off. Later, he remembered chatting with a Cottier Gallery employee who observed some notes by the artist on the painting so haunting to him now as he sat in the Hotel Albert. "The presiding genius in it all is Death, Death to the finer instincts. Death wins the race, always."
He stirred his tea and thought about the painting, how the Horse and Death are galloping in a direction counter to traditional American horse racing. He thought about the waiter and his self inflicted and countered change of fortune. Thought about the day of the race and how the weather was cold and grey. He wondered why he could not come to determine whether the painting depicted day or night. Or, if in the end this really mattered to Ryder at all. Since he never interviewed him, he would never find out.
Steven Rhude, Wolfville, NS.