There have been many paintings of racetracks, and on most of them there should be a comment beside the artist's name: blinkers on. The painters have confined their work to the veneer of the track. We see only the pomp of cantering horses, the gayness of the fancy, the plumage of the day. Scoured by brightness and sociability, we see the track as a most civilizing place to be. The painters ignore the coarse images: the creaking grandmothers in tight blue jeans, the hard mouths and frightened eyes, the un-dainty reality and desperation.
One chilling exception to the genteel view hangs in the Cleveland Museum of Art. Nightmarish and unearthly, the canvas is called The Race Track. It was created by Albert Pinkham Ryder, whose restive inner vision bridged the 19th and 20th centuries. The painting shows a skeletal jockey, scythe in hand, circling a deserted track under a sky the light of which has never been seen on land or sea. There are no spectators, no signs that a mob had been there. There is only this last rider, still prodding his lean horse along a rickety rail.
Interpretations of the canvas tend toward the allegorical: death in a dead world, or death can bring rest but cannot rest. Yet it seems that Ryder was painting something much closer to life. Consider the story behind the painting, the thing that drove Ryder to work on it for 15 years.
Ryder frequented the Hotel Albert in New York in the late 1880s. The Albert was a grand place, an exemplar of the Gilded Age, a period to which the artist was totally indifferent. The hotel was managed by his brother, and for years Ryder would dine there, sitting alone amid the gaiety and ostentation, seldom talking to anyone except his brother and the waiter who usually served him. Then came a day when the waiter was not there. Was he sick, Ryder inquired. No, said his brother, the waiter had shot himself. He had lost his life savings on a horse race.
February 3, 1975
Ryder was not a moralistic man: indeed he seems to have gone through life oblivious to mankind, seeing only sky, light and nature. People could do as they pleased, but the death of the waiter jarred him, and Ryder admitted it "formed a cloud over my mind that I could not throw off." And now when the sun is high and the day is right I, too, sense a cloud, see that lost rider, and the hand does not descend too carelessly to the pocket anymore.