Ryder usually limited his work to extremely small panels and canvases, often one foot square or smaller. However, between 1885 and 1896 he began five paintings, including "Constance," of about 29 x 36 inches, a relatively monumental size for him. The artist intended the five works to be...
Ryder usually limited his work to extremely small panels and canvases, often one foot square or smaller. However, between 1885 and 1896 he began five paintings, including "Constance," of about 29 x 36 inches, a relatively monumental size for him. The artist intended the five works to be his major artistic statements. All these works relate stories of human daring and frailty at moments when supernatural forces take control over life and death. The subject for "Constance" comes from Chaucer's "The Man of Law's Tale." Constance, daughter of the Emperor of Rome, and her infant son were treacherously abandoned at sea in a boat without rudder or sail. They miraculously were kept alive for five years until their boat drifted back to Rome. Ryder may have considered the story a counterpart to the Old Testament story of Jonah and the whale, a painting of which he had completed before he began "Constance." The tale from Chaucer may also have served as a literary link between his biblical and Shakespearian subjects. As first glance, Ryder's "Constance" appears somewhat static and empty, conveying little of the emotional impact of Chaucer's story. However, on closer examination the composition is complex. The entire picture is arranged to focus the viewer's attention on two specific passages: Constance's expression of despair as she lies in the boat clutching her child, and the subtle aureole of benevolent light that surrounds the boat, outside Constance's range of vision. Early photographs of this painting reveal that both these details were once much more evident than they appear now, victim to the accelerated deterioration that has plagued most of Ryder's paintings. Ryder's unconventional painting technique is evident here. The paint is elaborately layered onto the canvas, particularly in the area of the water, where the surface is thick with minute strokes of pigment mixed with varnish. Ryder was attempting to duplicate the luminous glazing technique used by Washington Allston and other early romantic painters. The desired effect was a scene full of translucent shadows that would reveal flickers of different colors beneath. This laborious working method reflects Ryder's devotion to the act of painting. For him, a painterly style provided creative freedom that could not be found in other mediums. The image of a boat upon a moonlit sea was one that Ryder used repeatedly in his mature work. The special significance that this imagery had for him usually has been explained by referring to the artist's childhood in the fishing port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Yet Ryder's vessels are those of myth, not his own memory. They carry a faint suggestion of the well-known moonlit seascapes of artists like Claude and Vernet. These images, as well as his painting technique, suggest that Ryder may have been striving to revive, in his own way, something of the great art of the past. This text has been adapted from D. Strazdes in T. Stebbins, et al., "A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting 1760-1910" exhibition catalogue, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1983.
The artist; Sir William Van Horne, Montreal, before 1905; to Lady Van Horne, Montreal, by 1918; Art Association of Montreal; to MFA, 1945, purchased for $3,000.
A. Shuman Collection—Abraham Shuman Fund