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Thursday, August 3, 2023

Jewish Women’s Organizations of the Capital District

By Harvey Strum
Copyright ©2023 All rights reserved by the author.

“If thou out of that oppressed race
Whose name’s proverb and whose lot’s disgrace
Brave the Atlantic---
Hope’s broad anchor weigh
A Western sun will
Gild your future day.

This poem, “To Persecuted Foreigners,” written in 1820 by a Jewish woman Penina Moishe to welcome German and central European Jewish immigrants coming to America between 1815-1870, was a premonition of a poem written by another Jewish woman Emma Lazarus to welcome immigrants to the US over fifty years later. The poem, New Colossus, written in 1883, portrayed the Statue of Liberty as the Mother of Exiles. All Jewish women who settled in the Capital District were exiles. Jews were the tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Jewish women played an essential role in supporting the Jewish immigrants coming to America and expressing Jewish identity. Jewish women would tell their solidarity with All Israel and their identification with American patriotism as Jews immigrated to the Capital District communities, such as Albany, Troy, and Schenectady. (Saratoga, Cohoes, Amsterdam, Gloversville, Glens Falls, Nassau/Schodack, and Hoosick Falls)

The first women’s organizations in the Capital District paralleled what became an integral part of every Jewish community in the United States. Women created women’s societies kevvrot Nashim, holy fellowships, to prepare women’s bodies for burial---these often became benevolent societies in the US. These societies spontaneously developed in the US--- similar to those in Europe. In Orthodox Judaism, members of the community took responsibility for the dead. Traditional Judaism required that Jews must be buried in sanctified Jewish cemeteries. Jewish tradition was the dead should not be left alone before burial. Several women from societies in Albany or Schenectady would volunteer, usually two at a time to sit by the departed. Women would visit and sit with the sick and dying as part of these benevolent societies' obligations. Women’s delegations would wash the deceased members’ bodies and donate six cents each to get a death cloth if the dead sister or family could not afford it. Dues from the benevolent societies were used to help poor women in the community, which is some kind of temporary distress.

By 1847, the Albany women’s holy fellowships developed at the first two Jewish congregations in Albany, Beth El, German, and Beth El Jacob, Polish, as the Ladies Benevolent Association. It created a School Fund Society to pay for the schooling of poor Hebrew children. A group of Jewish women in New York City organized in 1845 the German language United Order of True Sisters, emphasizing philanthropy, education, and social activities. Synagogues Beth El and Anshe Emeth (Reform) created an Albany chapter on August 4, 1857, the Abigail Lodge. German remained the language of the women’s organization in Albany until 1905. Many Jewish immigrants, men and women, emigrated from the south German states of Bavaria, Baden, and Württemberg and retained German as their primary language. In 1850, a Reform congregation broke away from Orthodox Beth El to establish Anshe Emeth. In Orthodox congregations women cannot sit with men and are usually not allowed to see each other during services; there is a dividing curtain, for example, in Shomray Torah and a collapsible divider in Beth Abraham-Jacob, both Orthodox in Albany. Reform Judaism allowed women and men to sit together. It opened up more significant roles for women, eventually leading to the women becoming cantors and rabbis, as is the case in Bnai Sholom in Albany, Berith Sholom in Troy, and Temple Sinai in Saratoga Springs. In Reform, women can count for the minyan, the necessary ten to hold a service, while Orthodox only count men. Conservative Judaism emerged in the US in the late 19th Century and in the Capital District in 1911. Men and women sit together, and most congregations count women for minyan. Women can serve as cantors and rabbis. Currently, none of the Capital District Conservative synagogues, like Ohav Sholom, have female rabbis.

The Order of True Sisters served as nota charitable organization and a fraternal organization paralleling the originally exclusively male B’nai Brith. In the 1930s, BB established women’s chapters. In the 19th Century, True Sisters became the major Jewish women’s organization nationally and in the Capital District. The lodges provided self-help to members. Meetings became colorful with secret rituals and special clothing for members. It reflected the Americanized German Jewish culture of mid-19th Century America, supplying a need for community outside of synagogues for women. Women’s associations performed the same functions and provided the same communal responsibilities to preserve Jewish identity. As historian Hasia Diner noted, “Women’s associations served the same religious and communal needs. Most members came from the same families.’ Furthermore, women’s organizations “saw themselves as agencies for the preservation of Judaism in its full sense.” Women’s groups also became an essential instrumentality for raising money to purchase religious objects and helping to fund the construction of new synagogues and other Jewish institutions.

In Troy, going beyond the holy sisterhoods, the women of Reform Berith Sholom organized a Temple Sisterhood in 1893, followed by the women at the Orthodox and later Conservative congregations. Female members of Beth El, Conservative, created the last of the Troy sisterhoods in 1929. Sisterhoods provided educational, social, and religious activities and allowed women to take leadership roles within Jewish congregations. Temple sisterhoods, starting with Reform sisterhoods, initially concentrated on social service within the congregation and the community, solicitation of funds for the needy, and organizing Sunday schools. They extended to creating courses in Judaism and Jewish history and sponsoring lecture series. Sisterhoods served as a transition association within Jewish communities to more women’s activism in the public sphere, supporting the right to vote and women’s rights. However, these were not the first Jewish women’s organizations in Troy. Paralleling Albany,  twelve women founded the Ladies Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1877 to provide emotional support and financial aid for the Jewish poor and transient members. These societies cared for widows and orphans and helped raise money for orphanages and homes for the elderly. Part of the obligations of Jewish communities was to take internal responsibility for those in need. Benevolent societies allowed women to become comfortable with their own power and the ability to organize Jewish social, educational, and philanthropic groups without male assistance. These organizations were a public statement of women’s power within the Jewish community. These groups sponsored social activities for their members, picnics, Purim fundraising parties, dime parties, and theatricals “for pleasure and to fill up their associations’ treasury.” Purim balls were a mixture of dancing, fun, and fundraising, effectively raising money for the poor.

1883 women founded the Rebecca chapter of the fraternal organization Kesher Shel Barzel. This was a lodge of a national organization of Jews from Eastern Europe serving similar social functions as the UOTS but with a difference. True Sisters was exclusively a women’s organization, while the Rebecca chapter was an auxiliary of a predominately male Jewish association. Women in the late 19th Century formed the Hebrew Shelter Society and the Ladies Aid Society to provide social services for the poor. Women established a chapter of the National Council of Jewish women, as did their counterparts in Albany and Schenectady. The National Council of Women initially sprang from women’s groups associated with Reform Judaism, like Beth Emeth in Albany and Berith Sholom in Troy. Founded in the mid-1890s, it quickly established chapters in over fifty cities, including the Capital District. It focused on social activism and especially reached out to Jewish women immigrants from Eastern Europe. Its motto was Religion, Philanthropy, and Education. They helped Jewish women immigrants and all Jewish immigrants adjust to their new environment. Members of the Council supported educational opportunities for young women and sought to counter social problems like juvenile delinquency and prostitution. The organization helped Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany in the 1930s and helped resettle survivors after World War II. These organizations ignored synagogue/communal boundaries and gave women a public space. By contrast, sisterhoods enabled women to engage in social activities and fellowship within congregational boundaries. They then extended their boundaries of activities while chapters of the National Council started enlarging the public actions of Jewish women. Also, National Council was a secular association that ignored congregational boundaries, while Sisterhoods came for individual Jewish congregations, Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Reconstructionist.

After a group of young men established a chapter of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association in 1912, a group of young Jewish women created a women’s auxiliary that, by 1916, emerged as the Young Women’s Hebrew Association. Nationally Y movement was founded in the late-19th Century for the moral uplift of the children of German Jewish immigrants. It was based on self-improvement, recreation, fellowship, and aid to the Jewish poor. They combined literary events with sports. It started as a secular organization but sponsored classes in Judaism and Sabbath services. Before American entrance into World War I, the YWHA joined with other Jewish groups in January 1916 on Jewish Relief Day, January 27, 1916, proclaimed by President Wilson. YWHA worked with the Ladies Committee of the Troy Jewish Relief Committee to raise funds for the millions of Jews in Eastern Europe displaced by the war and to assist Jews in Palestine suffering food shortages. During World War I, members of the YWHA engaged in Red Cross activities and welfare work to support the war. They joined with other organizations in the Patriotic League in Troy because of its many patriotic-related activities. In the 1920s, the YWHA worked with the YMHA to create the Jewish Community Center, a home for all the Jewish groups in the city.

As early as 1898, Jewish women founded the Daughters of Zion, one of the first women’s Zionist groups in the country, and sent delegates to national Zionist conferences in the late 1890s and early 20th Century. It became a branch of the Federation of American Zionists, the first national American Zionist organization. DAZ held regular meetings in Troy, raised money for Jewish settlements in Palestine, and cooperated with the male organization Sons of Zion. In the 1920s, another national women’s Zionist group developed Hadassah, which became one of the largest women’s organizations in the US and the most prominent Jewish women’s association in the world, according to historian Gerald Sorin. The Troy chapter, founded in 1926, is like the national focused on supporting public health in Palestine and encouraging the migration of young Jews to Palestine Hadassah connected to the Zionist Organization of America renamed FAZ.

More radical Jewish women Zionists founded a chapter of Pioneer Women associated with the Labor Zionists, the left wing of the Zionist movement. Pioneer Women began in 1924 as a labor women’s Zionist movement linked to the Palestinian Po’alei Zion (Workers of Zion) and Socialist International. Its support in the Capital District and nationally came from immigrant women from Eastern Europe. It allowed immigrant women to support the labor movement in Palestine, identify with socialist Zionism, and aid women’s cooperatives in Palestine. Goldie Myerson, one of its national leaders, became Israel’s PM as Golda Meir. Members of Pioneer Women viewed Hadassah and National Council of Jewish women as middle class, while its members were working class, socialist, feminist., progressive, equalitarian, and more militant. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, it identified with the Labor Party. Pioneer Women established chapters in Troy, Albany, and Schenectady in the mid-1920s. Nationally, Pioneer Women had 28,000 members in 1948 compared to 250,000 for Hadassah. Local chapters raised money for socialist cooperatives in Palestine, upheld the values of Yiddishkeit, class consciousness, social justice, and feminism, and became “a significant force in American Jewish life,” according to former SUNY Albany Judaic studies scholar Mark Raider.

Jewish organizational life in Schenectady began with the Ladies Benevolent Society, organized in the 1880s.the first independent secular communal society in the city. Members were initially primarily German-born Jews, and their daughters were associated with the Reform congregation Gates of Heaven. Like the Albany equivalent, it emphasized fundraising for charity and helping the poor, especially distressed women. Separately another group of Jewish women established the Ladies Hebrew Aid Society, described by a local newspaper as “composed of several prominent Hebrew women.” In November 1905, for example, they held “an elaborate Thanksgiving supper in the synagogue on Nott Terrace.” for charity to help the needy in the community. The female members of Gates of Heaven founded the first sisterhood in Schenectady in 1897 to do charitable work. Younger women created the distinct Young Ladies Temple Aid Society that held socials and bazaars to raise money, like the bazaar organized in May 1903. As East European Jews arrived in Schenectady between 1880 and 1924, women in each congregation established their own sisterhood. Female members of Agudas Achim founded Daughters of Rebecca in 1902. A local newspaper ran a story about Jewish Women forming an association in December 1902. Women at Ohab Zedek, a Hungarian Jewish congregation, organized the Order of Zion in 1904, while women at Ohab Sholom called their group Daughters of Freedom. Daughters of Rebecca played a crucial role in raising money by organizing bazaars and balls for the congregation to build a new synagogue building on Nott Terrace. The sisterhoods allowed women to form friendships with other women in their congregations while serving the congregation's and community's needs.

Because of the exclusion of Jewish girls from student organizations,  Jewish sororities and fraternities played a significant role in Jewish life in Schenectady’s high school. Delta Psi Sorority, for example, in 1936, was the major Jewish sorority in the local high school. When men in Schenectady formed the Jewish War Veterans in the mid-1930s, twenty-five women organized a women’s auxiliary in December 1935 to show their support of the veterans and highlight their patriotism, an issue always in dispute with the larger society. Men and women had to repeatedly show their patriotism and that Jews were not the “other.” Today, some right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats raise the same issues as in 1935, directed at the loyalty of American Jews.

On February 13, 1913, Orthodox women associated with the Hebrew Institute, a Jewish educational and social center, formed a Ladies Auxiliary to create the community-wide Hebrew School to help maintain Jewish identity. Mrs. Starkman, an immigrant from Hungary and member of Ohab Zedek, chaired the women’s association that emerged as the leading social service organization in the Jewish community in Schenectady and a forerunner of Jewish Family Services. Orthodox Jewish women in the Women’s Auxiliary raised funds to support the Hebrew School. This allowed Orthodox Jewish women to show independence from male-dominated institutions and provide service to the community.

Jewish women, primarily associated with Reform Gates of Heaven, formed a chapter of the National Council of Women in 1916. In Schenectady, as nationally, the membership came from primarily German Jewish women, their daughters, and granddaughters that were members of Reform congregations. Growing rapidly in the 1920s, it became the leading women’s organization in Schenectady for the next forty years. Members did not actively support Zionism until 1938, and Kristallnacht, which made clear that European Jews needed a refuge. America’s restrictive Emergency Quota Act of 1921 and National Origins Act of 1924 were attended to keep out Jews. While Emma Lazarus poem was put on the Statue of Liberty, the American Congress turned its back on Jewish refugees. Palestine seemed the only option. In 1944 it joined with the local chapter of Hadassah to promote a Jewish homeland in Palestine for survivors of Nazi barbarism. In the 1920s and 30s, the council focused on Americanizing Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. The Schenectady chapter held Americanization and English classes in local public schools for adults and children. During the interwar years, East European Jewish women could not join the National Council. Only after World War II were the daughters of East European Jews allowed to enter the National Council. Members of the Council helped with war relief during both world wars and raised funds for Jewish refugees both before and after World War II.

Women formed the Ionian Social Club in 1906 but lacked athletic facilities. When young men established the YMHA in 1912, women hoped for equal opportunities and agreed to form a Women’s Auxiliary in 1916. However, women resented the lack of equal facilities. They desired “equal privileges, the right to become a YWHA, and equal representation on the Board of Governors” that ran the Y movement in Schenectady. Jewish young women demanded equal treatment. The women won their argument with the establishment of the YWHA in July 1917 and got equal privileges with men. The two Ys were formally incorporated in 1921. The Ys combined sports, literary events, public speakers, and recreational activities in a Jewish setting, providing a safe environment for the daughters of recent immigrants. By the mid-1920s, the two Ys cooperated to form the Schenectady Jewish Community Center, which became the home for all Jewish associations in the city.

Daughters of Zion established a chapter in Schenectady about the same time as the Troy branch. It had frequent meetings and activities to raise money for Jewish settlements in Palestine, holding an early mass meeting in 1903 for Zionism. They used social activities like a dance in 1911 to raise the consciousness of Zionism. Earlier than Troy, the Schenectady DAZ became a chapter of Hadassah in 1915. Between the wars, National Council chapters in Schenectady and Albany did not endorse Zionism until 1938. While Pioneer Women criticized Hadassah as middle class, this was not true in Schenectady. Most members in the 1920s and 30s came from East European immigrants. In Schenectady, Hadassah and Pioneer Women met in women’s homes holding cooperative Sunday suppers to raise money for Palestine. The Schenectady Chapter of Hadassah passed around milk boxes to raise money to fight trachoma in Palestine. After World War II, Pioneer Women, Hadassah, and National Council invited speakers advocating a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The women’s groups cooperated with the Jewish Community Council to resettle 73 refugee families in Schenectady between 1940-52. After the war, they worked with JCC to raise money, food, and clothing for the survivors of the Holocaust in displaced persons camps in Germany. Some Jewish women, independently of any Jewish organizations in Schenectady, Troy, and Albany, solicited money between 1945 and 1948 to purchase medical supplies, searchlights, and other electrical equipment at General Electric and sporting goods stores to send to Jewish settlements in Palestine. They also raised money to purchase weapons shipped from Montreal or NYC to Palestine. A few young women went to Aliyah training camps at farms in Cohoes and Poestenkill to prepare to settle in Palestine. Hadassah and Pioneer Women joined with other Jewish groups to sponsor a mass meeting on May 20, 1948, to celebrate the independence of Israel. The Schenectady branches of the National Council and Hadassah apparently peaked in membership in the late 1950s/early 1960s.

Meanwhile, in Albany, in the 1860s, women’s groups sponsored Purim balls as vehicles for fundraising for charity. Albany public library, for example, has a pamphlet for the 1869 the Ladies Benevolent Society. Women’s groups played a significant role in 1880 in fundraising to create the Jewish Home for the Aged. In the 1880s, the Ladies Sewing Society sponsored entertainment and fundraising fairs, like the one in 1883, to aid the poor. Formally incorporated in March 1899, with thirteen women as directors, including Mary Friedman, Julia Auer, and Sophia Rosenfeld, it stated its mission “to assist needy women and children, to supply them with clothing, and to assist in burials of those without relatives to pay the cost of a funeral. . The Ladies Sewing Society continued to support Jewish causes, like donations made in November 1919 to aid Jewish victims of pogroms in Poland, Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. The actions of German Jewish women and their daughters fitted a national pattern as historian Hasia Diner concluded; “German Jewish women being particularly active in organizing and raising funds for social welfare programs.”

In 1890, women started the Clara de Hirsch Society “to give aid to the poor and needy.” The local group was named after a German Jewish philanthropist Baroness de Hirsch who supported programs for working-class Jewish immigrant women. German Jewish women in the Clara D society reached out to the new Eastern European Jewish girls and women who might need a helping hand---to secure housing, work, health support, and job training. Its goals, locally and nationally, were to improve young immigrant women's mental, moral, and physical condition and aid them in self-sufficiency.

In 1895, German Jewish women established an Albany chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, and by 1903, it had 125 members. The Albany chapter concentrated on improving educational opportunities for the children of East European immigrants and settling immigrants on farms in southern Rensselaer County. It worked with the Jewish Agricultural Society, and at its peak in the mid-1920s, two hundred Jewish farm families lived in Nassau, Schodack area. To help Jewish immigrants unable to attend the city’s night schools, it organized the Saturday Evening Class for Foreigners as a vehicle to teach English to new immigrants. Between 1895 and 1904, the chapter established Sunday School, that by 1906 had 16 teachers and 230 students. It created a Sabbath Afternoon class, a library, additional Hebrew and Jewish history classes, a Penny Provident Society for charity, and Grace Aguilar Club for younger women, founded in 1901. Councilwomen also set up several groups for young men, like the Junior Literary Society. While the Albany chapter did not endorse Zionism until 1938, it sponsored talks on Zionism, like the one on Practical Zionism on March 9, 1914. A separate Grace Agular Literary Society, another German Jewish group established in the 1880s, supported Jewish causes like Jewish Relief Day in January 1916.

By 1915 young Jewish women, primarily daughters of East European immigrants, established a branch of the YWHA in December. Besides athletic and educational activities, the YWHA joined with YMHA to sponsor dances at the Albany Yacht Club. Members joined in raising funds for displaced Jews in Europe, helping to organize activities on Jewish Relief Day in January 1916. It also worked with local Zionist groups to sponsor fundraising events like the annual flag day event for the benefit of the Jewish national fund in December 1919. In 1925 joined, the two Ys formed the Albany Jewish Community Center.

In 1898 a Daughters of Zion chapter appeared in Albany and would hold regular meetings to raise awareness of Zionism and raise funds for Jewish settlers in Palestine. Representatives attended the 1898 and 1900 Zionist conventions. As an example of a fun activity for Zionists, 400 Zionist men and women from Albany and Troy went down the Hudson on August 19, 1902, aboard the Harvest Queen, on an excursion to a Hudson River park. During World War I, it actively solicited donations for displaced Jews in Eastern Europe and distressed Jews in Palestine. It joined with male Zionists to hold annual tributes to Theodore Herzl and, as an example, had a special meeting at one of the synagogues in 1916 with speakers in English and Yiddish to promote Zionism. For instance, it solicited donations for the Palestine Restoration Fund in February 1918. By the 1920s, Albany had chapters of the women’s Zionists, Hadassah, and the more militant Pioneer Women. In addition, for girls aged 17-21, women organized Daughters of the White and Blue and the Junior Daughters of Ruth and co-educational groups, like the Zionist Culture Club (organized in August 1920) and Junior Workers of Zion Club. Zionism emerged as an integral part of the American Jewish experience for men and women.

Albany hosted the Ladies Radical Society in the early 20th Century for women interested in more radical politics. The Radical Society was also active in Jewish causes, for example, donating to East European Jews displaced by World War I participating in Jewish Relief Day in January 1916. Emma Goldman, a leading female Jewish radical, frequently spoke in Albany and Schenectady between 1900-1914 on anarchism and feminism in Yiddish, English, and Russian. A handbill in Yiddish, for example, advertised, “Emma Goldman…very popular speaker will speak in Albany in April 1906.” Police broke up the meeting, but it did not stop Goldman from returning to speak or for some local Jewish immigrant women joining the Capital District anarchist group Germinal. Jewish women and men would join with their Italian comrades from Schenectady to plot a revolution over tea and plates of pastry. Other women allied with the Socialist Party or the Socialist fraternal organization Workmen’s Circle. The late Sadie Schneider remembered attending a Workmen’s Circle sponsored Yiddish language day school in the 1930s. At least two of the Yiddish language cemetery markers in the Workmen’s Circle Cemetery in Albany suggest the active role of women. One to Harriet Thuroff “Thy memory shall be our guiding star in our struggle.” Rose Halpert includes a tribute to her activism in the revolutionary worker's movement.


When Jewish women planned a Purim ball or founded a chapter of True Sisters, they did not consider the historical or cultural importance. According to Hasia Diner, Jewish communal life, whether women’s associations or male benevolent chapters, grew out of need, a desire for fellowship, support in times of crisis, and a need for community. Jewish women created organizations because they needed them as part of their adjustment to the new environment of America. Women’s associations formed part of a new, bolder approach in America by men and women to create secular Jewish organizations to preserve Jewish identity and fulfill community needs outside the confines of rabbinic and congregational control. Also, as historian Hollace Weiner concluded: “Women’s activism and money raising acumen are part of a pattern evidenced in Jewish communities large and small” (whether in Troy, NY or Fort Worth, Tx), traditional, reform or secular across America.

About the author: Harvey Strum has been a professor of history and political science at Russell Sage College for 36 years. Recent publications include "Yiddishkeit" in the 2022 issue of the New York History Review and "Solidarity of All Israel" in the 2022 issue of the National Social Science Association Journal. 

Monday, June 26, 2023

Sacred Space Realized: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Design of Graycliff

By Paul Lubienecki, PhD
Any sacred space, for any religion, has been a symbol of a primordial place of spiritual redemption and peace; it is a concretized expression of a nostalgia for paradise. The sacred place is seen as an axis mundi: an intersection of heaven and earth with humankind.[1] An object, a tree, or a building was the hinge, the connector between these worlds, and was the sign and symbol of that affiliation. This affirmation of the spiritual and the architectural is realized in Frank Lloyd Wright’s design of Graycliff in Derby, New York. Originally designed as a family dwelling and the summer home of Darwin and Isabelle Martin, Wright incorporated his architectural axiom that “form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” [2] Therefore, Graycliff's design has attained an unintentional theological basis in its form and purpose. Planned as a home, it resonates with the Architect’s interior beliefs of family, nature, and the Spiritual.[3]

Frank Lloyd Wright had experience designing houses of worship: Unity Temple in Oak Park, Illinois, and Beth Shalom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, are two of his most notable examples of many. He was raised in a liberal, Unitarian, and intellectual environment. His Unitarian uncle, the Reverend Jenkins Lloyd Jones, was another considerable influence who continued to guide Wright spiritually and encouraged him as an architect. These family influences fostered a lifelong sense of a more significant source in his work.

Throughout his life and career, Wright maintained that he always considered himself a deeply religious person and generally spoke of nature and architecture spiritually, declaring, “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature."[3]

Graycliff’s purpose as a family home is not unique, as Wright produced plans for many family dwellings. In Buffalo, he is noted for Martin House, Heath House, Davidson, and Barton Houses designs. In 1951, the Piarist Fathers, a religious order from Hungry, purchased the former Martin Family estate in Derby, New York, from the Buffalo Phoenix Corporation for $50,000. [4] It became a focal point for education and Hungarian culture in the area. The primary residence and other buildings were suitable and would need some alterations to accommodate the needs of these unassuming and humble priests. The conversion of the summer estate into a residence for a religious order of Catholic men and as a worship site is not novel.[5] 

When Christianity was a forbidden sect, the early Church assembled at private residences for worship and left it indistinguishable from other houses' archeological evidence.[6] What distinguishes this particular Wright design is its ultimate transformation and use of that space, which can be considered sacred. The Architect’s original plan never envisioned the property as a prayer and worship center. But the function and symbolic focus of Graycliff is sanctified in its architectural content, as described this way by Wright:

“The building as architecture is born out of the
heart of man, permanent consort to the ground,
comrade to the trees, a true reflection of a man in
the realm of his own spirit. His building is therefore
consecrated space wherein he seeks refuge, recreation,
and repose of body but especially mind.”[7]

While physical structures were adjusted or constructed by the Piarist Fathers, the evolution of Martin’s summer house into a sacred space was achieved naturally, organically, and spiritually from its initial conception. Wright’s reflections on architecture clearly demonstrate his indwelling persona:      

“Any building is a by-product of eternal living force,
a spiritual force taking forms in time and place
appropriate to man. We must remember that
architecture is not these buildings themselves but
something far greater. We must believe architecture
to be the living spirit that made buildings what they were.”[8]

With the priests as the residents of Graycliff, a sanctuary was constructed for religious services. St. Michael’s Chapel, built by the Piarist Fathers, was installed before the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. That particular sacred space was created as a ceremonial center of worship serving the needs of the faith community. Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy emphasized that the worshiping community is the Church, not the building. It refreshingly acknowledged that sacred spaces change and can continue to change by permitting the Catholic parish community to modify their spaces to suit local needs.[11] The Piarist Fathers altered the area of the south terrace for worship space which is within the norms of the Catholic Church. It stood as a place of prayer and a sign of worship and connection between the people of God on earth and their Creator.[12]

Wright designed the Unitarian Unity Temple in Chicago and connected it with Unity House to have a double presence as a worship space and a public auditorium. Worship is a church’s primary function, and its social or public life should be symbolically linked with its religious purpose.[13] With Unity Temple, Wright asserted this statement to be an architectural fact. At Graycliff, the Piarist Fathers reaffirmed this in using the property for worship and public functions. Sacred space, then, should not be a formalized, staid location but one that is a representation. It is where one awaits a fundamentally different experience; the “outside” world has been banned and replaced by a new inner symbolic space.[14]

From the time of ancient cultures to the present, religious architecture is a witness to the presence of belief within that culture or community. The sacred site was a manifestation of the deity.[15] Traditionally, these structures have chosen prominent placements to declare their distinction from the surrounding secular edifices.[16] The sacred place was constructed of precious materials to set it apart from all other structures. The architects and builders of ancient cultures used the relationship of the sun to the earth to create sacred places.[17] Geometric patterns were in place as a mark of distinction and to distinguish the sacred form from the formless profane surroundings.[18] Water often possesses strong symbolic content in religion, and ablution is a ritual shared by all faiths.[19]

Wright created Graycliff utilizing the local stone with its iron oxide color to elevate this place from the profane and to have the rocks come alive. He repeats the geometric diamond pattern found in the house's stones, fixtures, and furniture. Lake Erie symbolizes a “holy water” font for ritual blessings and soul cleansing. Wright’s design of the house on the lake shore clearly commingles water with the space washing over the individual in a new baptism. The main house is angled to capture the sun’s rays that bathe the house in a penetrating diagonal path as if to energize the building. Wright designed Graycliff to capture sunlight at its optimum. The natural light penetrates the house casting diagonal shadows across the floor and spreading to the exterior shaded terrace. In a decorative motif found in the stone, Wright expressed the path of the summer sun, particularly the summer solstice. The joints of the flagstone terrace floor are set at the same angle as the setting sun on this day. It represents the natural light filling not only the structure but the individual. 
Mayan architectural influence is recognized at Graycliff. Wright felt that Mayan temples and buildings, with their extended terraces and the scale of their horizontal stone construction, were the “purest kinship to elemental nature.”[20] The physical location is set apart from the mundane, like a monastery. He has created, if not a temple, a sacred space. Here, one experiences a sense of invitation to an inner spiritual retreat reconnecting man to his Creator through the earth, water, sky, and light. 

The three fundamental tenets of fides (loyalty), proles (children), and Sacramentum (the indissoluble unity of husband and wife) were the essential basis of Roman Catholic canon law concerning marriage and the family that emerged in the early Middle Ages.[21] During the Reformation, Luther ennobled the humble home as the parents and children tended to their daily chores. Marriage is a religious state to him.[22]

Wright’s residential designs, particularly in the Prairie Style, were to be shelters for the family. They were built as protection from the external elements and implied an internal healthy psychological atmosphere. 

From his childhood experiences, he wanted to create a close-knit family living joyfully in therapeutic surroundings.[23] Wright perceived the family as an intimate group within a larger community. The family gathered by the hearth's fire, for it is here, at the center of the house, that the family maintains the sacred fires. The hearth, for Wright, was the altar of the house.[24] To the ancient Greeks and Romans, fire symbolized purity. In the Catholic tradition, the Paschal or Easter candle represents the light of Christ. An eternal flame, important at grave sites or memorials, is an extension of the ever-glowing hearth at the center of the home.[25] The expression of this is visually and interiorly present at Graycliff. 

The Martin family’s time at Graycliff was certainly memorable. That time should be considered sacred, not in a liturgical sense, but from the sacramental and consecrated quality of marriage and family. They lived in a place designed by integrating natural elements into the structure by an architect who saw God in nature. In architecture, Wright submits, “God meets with nature in the relative sphere.”[26] By mixing the organic architecture with that of the family/community, a sacredness to that time and place has been achieved. 
With the acquisition of the property by the Piarist Fathers, the notion of sacred space is self-evident. The tenet is that the church building is the house of the Church, in the Biblical sense of that word.[27]

Ordinarily, the transfiguration of the south terrace into a chapel was the evidentiary sign of sacred space. This new addition, adorned with a crucifix, altar, candles, and pews, does not make the space holy. The symbolic purpose is domus ecclesiae significant -the house of stones that shelters the faith community and welcomes those to partake in the mystical union with Christ at the altar.[28] That designates the sanctity of space at Graycliff in a traditional manner. It is not a gathering place for religious participants who ritually act out their roles with the architecture as only a theatrical backdrop.[29] The “performance” unfolding here is the mingling between the sacred and the secular, between heaven and earth-God and humankind.

Officially, the Catholic Church has not adopted any particular style of church art or architecture.[30] Church architecture is to be true to the situation it is trying to serve and express; it must say that a church building creates a sense of community.[31] Graycliff was a setting for the community of the Martin family and their friends and, later, for the Piarist Order. The sense of gathering and unity establishes the consecration of the site. 

The use of the sacred space impacts the community's existence, as lived out in the Liturgy, prayer, or worship. The Piarist Fathers celebrated the Mass in the chapel but would also conduct an outdoor Liturgy during the May crowning or the August Lawn Fete. The precise location did not diminish the worship service, as Liturgy is at the very core of the Church’s life. Private and personal devotions are not denied, but worship in the Christian community is a communal act.[32] A permanent structure designated for the corporate worship of God is not strictly essential. Precise location does not tarnish the meaning. 
The addition of the chapel and Catholic school, the placement of a statue of the Virgin Mary at the front circle, and the estate’s role as a novitiate and spiritual retreat center merely signified the utilization of the facilities as Roman Catholic. The time of the Piarist community at Graycliff was a formalization of the buildings and grounds as being sacred. It symbolized the Traditional and was a focal point for prayer, reconciliation, and redemption. The mission of the Derby House, like that of the Church, was to strive for the installation of the kingdom of God here and now. In a 1903 letter to Darwin Martin discussing Christian Science and religion, Wright would prophetically underscore this point: “It is a church, however as are other churches, a man-made effort to live about the details of every day, the life revealed by Christ.[33]

The main house is not a church edifice but a spiritual house built from living stones. The Martins’ spiritual home is within the sacred space of the family. The Catholic priests maintain that it is a spiritual house due to the rituals of the Liturgy. Wright’s notion of living stones integrates the local rock into the structure, while the Piarist Fathers consider the people of God to be the living stones. 
These varying notions and beliefs of sacred space and its use are fused at Graycliff. The concept of sacred space, be it from a traditional religious stance, a humanist perspective, or an architectural plan, enhance the experience of this site. It is easy to comprehend how the family is perceived as a sacred unit. It is conventional to assume sanctity to space occupied by a religious community. With rapt admiration, it is discovered how Wright designed a space incorporating his interior life and beliefs for a house and property that could become and did become sacred in its form and function. 

Graycliff continues to saturate the visitor with awe and inspiration as there is a felt presence here where heaven and earth have joined. Regardless of an individual’s spiritual perspective, there is an invitation to experience oneness with nature and an individual’s concept of God in this sacred space. This impression is created from the structure's design and the essence of its use over the decades as a family home and later as a religious community. 

Wright considered his organic style of architecture to be a “fourth dimension,” as he viewed space as tangible and intangible. He advanced this to the spiritual, speculating that the ultimate mission of this organic style was a path toward the universal salvation of mankind.[34] Wright believed all his structures served a higher purpose as if they were transcendental in form and substance. He endeavored to make present the understanding of the building as a sacred act and buildings as sacred places.[35]

At Graycliff, there is an appreciation for the sacredness of that space: the use of materials, the visual beauty of the site, the remembered sanctity of the family, and the memory of the religious community at worship. All this brings an aura of spirituality to the visitor.

A coexistence occurs here that may not appear obvious but is intended by the creativity of Wright. In connecting all the components of earth and heaven, family, and worship, he has established Graycliff as a singular entity in its form and function as a sanctuary. The Catholic Church validates the union of Architect and structure when it proclaims:                        

“Architects and artists give glory to God through
their work. They communicate something of
their intuition of the divine and through their
imagination give some insight into the mysteries
of faith, which are inaccessible to reason alone.”[36]

“Reality is spirit, the essence brooding just behind all aspects.”[37] He did not view life as symbolized in his buildings but embodied in the occupation of that space. By this, the occupants of Graycliff, both the Martins and Piarist Fathers, confirmed this place as the ultimate expression of sacred space.

About the author: Dr. Lubienecki is the founding director of the Boland Center for the Study of Labor and Religion. He has published and taught in the Catholic Labor Colleges, that educated workers about their rights and duties.



[1]Thomas Barrie, Spiritual Path, Sacred Place. Myth, Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture. (Boston:                                Shambhala Publications, 1996),  66.

[2]Wright, The Future of Architecture, (New York: Bramhall House, 1953) 322.

[3]Joseph M.  Siry, Unity Temple, Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture for Liberal Religion. (Cambridge:                     University Press, 1996), 12.

[4]Ketterl, “Graycliff, A Proposal for the Rehabilitation of a Master Work,” without pagination. 

[5]There have been, and continues to be, properties on the shores of Lake Erie designed for religious purposes. The Passionist Order of Catholic Priests operated a boy’s school and minor seminary in Dunkirk, NY, concurrently with Graycliff. It closed in the late 1960s. Protestant denominations also operate retreat centers and religious camps along the lake.

[6]Richard Kitchener, Theology in Stone, Church Architecture from Byzantium to Berkeley, (Oxford:                           University Press, 2004), 70.

[7]Robert McCarter, ed., On and By Frank Lloyd Wright. A Primer of Architectural Principles, (London:

 Phaidon press Ltd., 2005),  264.

[8]Frank Lloyd Wright, The Future of Architecture, (New York: Bramhall House, 1953),  52.

[9]Paul Eli Ivey, Prayers in Stone. Christian Science Architecture in the United States, 1894-1930.                             (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 118.

[10]Ibid., 118.

[11]Nelson, ed., American Sanctuary, Understanding Sacred Spaces, (Bloomington: Indiana                                          University Press, 2006), 141.

[12] Joseph Duffy, D.D., The Place of Worship. Pastoral Directory on the Building and Reordering of                             Churches. Carlow, Ireland: Veritas Publications and the Irish Institute of Pastoral Liturgy, 1966) 17.

[13]Siry, Unity Temple, Frank Lloyd Wright and Architecture for Liberal Religion. (Cambridge:                                       University Press, 1996),  116.

[14]Samuel Laeuchli, Religion and Art in Conflict, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980),  148.

[15]Barrie, Spiritual Path, Sacred Place. Myth, Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture. (Boston:                                           Shambhala Publications, 1996),   67.

[16]Edward A. Sovik, Architecture for Worship, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1973),   51.

[17]Lawlor, The Temple in the House, (New York: Putnam Books, 1994), 118.

[18]Barrie, Spiritual Path, Sacred Place. Myth, Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture.,  67.

[19]Ibid.,  74.

[20]Neil Levine, The Architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 141. 

[21]Norris Kelly Smith, Frank Lloyd Wright, A Study in Architectural Content, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice -Hall               Inc., 1966), 69.

[22]Ibid., 69.

[23]Robert C. Twombly, Frank Lloyd Wright, (New York: Harper & Row, 1973),.  71.

[24]McCarter, ed., On and By Frank Lloyd Wright. A Primer of Architectural Principles,  317.

[25]Lawlor, The Temple in the House, (New York: Putnam Books, 1994),  135.

[26]Wright, The Future of Architecture, (New York: Bramhall House, 1953) 200.

[27]Peter Hammond, Liturgy, and Architecture, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961),. 28.

[28]Ibid.,  155.

[29]Lindsay Jones, Hermeneutics of Sacred Architecture, Experience, Interpretation, Comparison. Volume 2, (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2000), 208.

[30]Duffy, The Place of Worship. Pastoral Directory on the Building and Reordering of Churches,  12.

[31]Bernard Cooke, S.J. “Theology of the Liturgy,” Church Architecture, The Shape of Reform, (Washington:  The Liturgical Conference, 1965),  11.

[32]Hammond, Liturgy, and Architecture, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1961). 29.

[33]Darwin Martin papers. MS 22.8, Box 1, Folder 20. (University Archives, University at Buffalo).

[34]Smith, Frank Lloyd Wright, A Study in Architectural Content, (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice -                                  Hall Inc., 1966),  177.

[35]McCarter, ed., On and By Frank Lloyd Wright. A Primer of Architectural Principles, 12.

[36]Duffy, The Place of Worship. Pastoral Directory on the Building and Reordering of Churches,  13.

[37]Frank Lloyd Wright, An American Architecture, (New York: Horizon, 1955),  18.                             

Monday, March 13, 2023


by James W. Ellis
Copyright ©2023. All rights reserved by the author.


The artist Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) lived for five productive decades on Manhattan’s Lower West Side, during which time he became America’s most idiosyncratic painter of imaginative subjects (fig. 1). Late in life, Ryder reflected on his artistic journey and characterized himself as a seeker in search of something he might never find. He asked, “Have you ever seen an inchworm crawl up a leaf or twig and then, clinging to the very end, revolve in the air, feeling to reach something? That’s like me. I am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing” (Ryder 1905, 10). Ryder tended to select subjects from music and literature, from Wagnerian operas, Shakespeare’s dramas, and the Bible, but he used these sources as jumping-off points. His most powerful and dramatic images place archetypical characters within mysterious, eloquently expressed settings accented by unsettling colors and unnatural lighting. Above anything else, Ryder relied on his own intuition and instincts; his themes were utterly transformed by inner visions and deliberations. Perhaps his most affecting single work is Death on a Pale Horse, which is also known as The Race Track (fig. 2).


Figure 1. Alice Boughton, Albert Pinkham Ryder. 1905. Photograph. 

Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Public Domain. 

Figure 2. Albert Pinkham Ryder, Death on a Pale Horse (The Race Track), ca. 1896–1908.

Oil on canvas; 28 x 35 in. 

The Cleveland Museum of Art. Public Domain.


The Artist

Albert Pinkham Ryder descended from the early English settlers of the Plymouth Colony on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. During the 1630s, one of his ancestors left the colony to help found the town of Yarmouth, and by the mid-nineteenth century, the family had settled further inland to New Bedford, Massachusetts. This was where the future artist was born, on March 19, 1847, the youngest of four brothers. During the nineteenth century, the Ryder family was caught up in the revivalist spirit of the Protestant Great Awakenings, and they joined the American Methodist movement. The English clergymen John Wesley, his brother Charles Wesley, and George Whitefield helped establish the Methodist Revival in the southern colony of Georgia during the 1730s, which quickly spread up the Eastern Seaboard in the next decade, reaching New York, Boston, and all the principal cities and towns of New England by the mid-1740s (see Carwardine 1972). Albert’s grandparents and his parents, Alexander and Elizabeth (Cobb) Ryder, were devout Methodists. His grandmother, mother, and other women in his family even dressed in the “plain manner” more commonly associated with the Quakers and Amish (Sherman 1920, 12). The artist’s strict religious upbringing shaped his worldview and the subjects he chose to depict.

Each of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s older brothers served in the military during the Civil War, and after the war was over, each brother relocated to New York City in search of economic opportunities. Albert and his parents soon followed, and by 1871 the whole family was reunited and living together again in Manhattan in a small house on West Thirty-fifth Street (Broun 1989, 18, 182). The artist’s father, Alexander Ryder, helped support the family by working in a variety of trades and even served as a church sexton in a local Methodist congregation.

Albert Pinkham Ryder showed an artistic aptitude at an early age, and as soon as he arrived in New York, he began taking instruction in drawing from William Edgar Marshall (1837-1906). Marshall’s fame was based primarily on his engraved portraits of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant, and he accepted many students into his studio. After Ryder honed his skills for several months, he applied to The National Academy of Design and was accepted. For the following four years, Ryder took part in drawing courses at the Academy’s building on Park Avenue and Twenty-third Street, sketching plaster casts of famous ancient sculptures and producing studies of live models. Around the same time, he took his first trip to Europe but stayed only one month. He would return to Europe only twice, in 1887 and 1896, but both times he again quickly returned.

Art historians and curators often mischaracterize Albert Pinkham Ryder as either somewhat naïve or as a wholly unique artist. This may be because as Ryder aged, he became more and more reclusive, living and working in seclusion, and his visual idiom grew more eccentric and visionary. In this progression, Ryder was similar to the innovative post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Ryder’s near contemporary. Van Gogh has also been misunderstood as a mere oddity or as an outsider to the art world who preferred only to pursue his own muse and disregarded the work of others (see Bailey 2019). But, in fact, both van Gogh and Ryder were well acquainted with the history of European painting, and both were particularly impressed by the landscapes and genre scenes of the French Barbizon School (Homer 1961, 283; regarding Ryder’s other influences, see Evans 1986). Ryder was known to frequent The Metropolitan Museum of Art and leading galleries to see the paintings of Jean-François Millet (1814-1875), bucolic scenes infused with spiritual messages. Ryder also borrowed from the softly generalized forms, rough brushwork, and “dusky golden tonalities” of the Barbizon painter Théodore Rousseau (1812-1876) (Homer 1961, 283). However, while Ryder was a sophisticated art student, like van Gogh, he had an unusual disposition.

An Odd Personality

During the twelve years that Albert Pinkham Ryder worked on Death on a Pale Horse (The Race Track), he lived in a “row house” at 308 West Fifteenth Street, near Eighth Avenue, specifically in a cramped attic studio on the second floor at the rear of the building (Taylor 1984, 3). One of Ryder’s few close friends during this period was Charles Fitzpatrick, who lived at the adjacent row house. Fitzpatrick described 308 West Fifteenth Street as “an old-fashioned house … one of those peculiar houses that attract professional people of small means, most of the tenants [were] artists, sculptors, musicians, doctors, and newspaper men” (Fitzpatrick 1984, 8).

Ryder took no interest in the condition of his tiny studio apartment. Fitzpatrick recalled the artist’s room was cluttered with “bags and barrels filled with paper, empty food boxes, ashes, old clothes, especially under-garments … all soiled and in a fearful condition, mice that had decayed in traps, food in pots that had been laid aside and covered with paper and forgotten” (Fitzpatrick 1984, 8). Ryder often appeared in public in a similar state of disrepair, his clothes disheveled and his rugged beard untrimmed. More than once, the city housing authority was called out to investigate the deplorable state of Ryder’s dwelling. When they did, the artist was found “sleeping on a rough cot” or puttering around in his overalls “with a pair of old leather slippers on his stockingless feet.” Outsiders might have viewed his studio as “the abode of dirt and disorder,” but Ryder himself, “the poet and dreamer, had a very different idea. ‘I have two windows [he explained, which] look out onto an old garden, [and] I would not exchange these two windows for a palace with less a vision than this garden with its whispering leafage – [it’s] nature’s gift to the least of her little ones’” (Sherman 1920, 19-20).

Ryder placed a far higher value on his independence and individuality and his drive to document his intense inner imaginings than on material comforts. In a letter dated 1900, he wrote, “It is the first vision that counts. The artist has to remain true to his dream, and it will possess his work in such a manner that it will resemble the work of no other man – for no two visions are alike. Those who reach the heights have all toiled up the steep mountains by a different route. To each has been revealed a different panorama” (Homer and Goodrich 1989, 205).

Completing a painting was rarely the artist’s primary goal; rather, working through an initial conception was his fascination. The abstract idea underlying a work meant more than its fulfillment (Soby and Miller, 35). Ryder was notorious for his frustratingly slow process and his “tortoise-like pace.” He labored over and over for as long as fifteen years on a single painting, developing a “neurotic attachment” that prevented patrons from taking works from his studio (Homer 1990, 86). The artist’s obsessivity was exacerbated by his poor eyesight, brought on by a childhood infection, which made prolonged visual concentration extremely difficult. In addition, Ryder suffered from various other ailments, including gout, kidney disease, insomnia, and a nervous disorder (perhaps “neurasthenia”), that impeded his progress (Ross 2003, 89-90). As a result, in a career lasting fifty years, Ryder’s entire oeuvre numbered just over one-hundred-fifty paintings.

A Spiritual Muse

Albert Pinkham Ryder undoubtedly had an eccentric personality and was withdrawn, but he was not simply unsociable. Ryder disregarded the state of his apartment and avoided the company of others largely because of an obsessive preoccupation with his work. As Ryder aged and became well-known, though, he attracted the attention of a younger generation of painters living and studying in New York. One of these younger painters was the prominent social realist Philip Evergood (1901-1973). Evergood’s parents were close acquaintances of Ryder’s next-door neighbors, Charles and Louise Fitzpatrick, and over time, Louise and Flora Evergood (Philip’s mother) became the best of friends.

As a child, Philip Evergood often visited Ryder’s studio and “played among [his] canvases” with Fitzpatrick’s adopted daughter Mary (Taylor 1984, 2). Evergood expressed admiration for Ryder’s personal magnetism: “He drifted smoothly along, taking everybody, children, women, trees and sky as a matter of course. He would talk to strangers as though he had known them all his life, though he only had a few real friends (Evergood 1984, 6). On warm summer evenings, Ryder often accompanied Louise and Mary Fitzpatrick to church, preferring to sit outside “on the church steps waiting for them to come out” (Taylor 1984, 4). The church doors were kept open during the summer, and Ryder sat listening as Mary sang in the choir and at times, performed a solo (Fitzpatrick 1984, 13).

The Fitzpatricks outlived Flora Evergood (and Albert Pinkham Ryder) by many years, but they continued their relationship with Philip Evergood until their own deaths. Charles Fitzpatrick often spoke with Philip Evergood about his artwork, but as Charles aged, his attitude changed. As he neared his own death, he grew more and more religious. Evergood was surprised when Fitzpatrick began voicing “gruffy disapproval of [his] work just before he died [in 1932]. He acted as though my paintings were obscene. … I was painting all imaginative compositions with nudes, and [Charles] used to preach to me to change my ways and to think of Ryder’s religious fervor [emphasis added]” (Evergood 1984, 5). Louise Fitzpatrick made similar suggestions. She encouraged Philip to go study Ryder’s pictures closely whenever he could, not to see the way he painted, but to “feel the mystic spirit of his soul” (Evergood 1984, 5). It seemed to Philip Evergood that Louise gradually transformed into “a kind of Saint whose fervor and love for humanity was completely tied up in her fervor and love of the master. She would speak of Ryder and Christ in the same breath” (Evergood 1984, 7). Because of Albert Pinkham Ryder’s reliance on (often religious) inspiration, and his prioritizing of subjectivity and individuality, he is often considered a latter-day Romantic.

Romanticism was a wide-ranging artistic and cultural movement that swept across Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. European Romantics shared a nostalgia for the past and were “interested in the mind as the site of mysterious and unexplained” phenomena (Adams 2002, 754). Chief European Romantics such as William Blake (1757-1827) and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) painted with a rich and religious imagination (see Polistena 2009). Romanticism arrived rather late in the United States, though, and American Romantics, such as many of the Hudson River School, often worked in isolation as bohemian artists (Kuspit 1963, 219).

Most art historians agree Albert Pinkham Ryder was a Romantic, and many debate whether he also deserves the epithet “mystic” since he opted for a humble life of contemplation in order to attain a spiritual apprehension that lay beyond the intellect or human perception. Historian and psychoanalytical art critic Donald Kuspit dismissed this epithet, preferring to see Ryder’s “hyperbole of moodiness and passion” as characteristic of his unique “conception of expressiveness” (Kuspit 1963, 219). On the other hand, Columbia University Professor of Art Barbara Novak believed Ryder’s “entire oeuvre, religious or secular [was] an act of devotion”; he saw “all of nature within the purview of the Almighty” (Novak 1969; quoted in Dillenberger and Taylor 1972, 154). Lloyd Goodrich, the longtime Director of the Whitney Museum of American Art, concurred, calling Ryder “one of the few authentic religious painters of his period – in whom religion was not mere conformity, but deep personal emotion. The life of Christ moved him to some of his most tender and impressive works” (Goodrich, 1959; also quoted in Dillenberger and Taylor 1972, 154).

The work that will now be examined, Death on a Pale Horse (The Race Track), offers a fascinating balance of Ryder’s competing passions, 1. his desire to visually realize his initial inspiration or conception, and 2. his desire to reach “beyond the place on which [he had] a footing,” to express a transcendent, spiritual concept.

The Inspiration

Albert Pinkham Ryder’s personality could scarcely have been more distinct from that of his older brother, William Davis Ryder (1837-1898) (Hotel Albert 2011). William was far more pragmatic and business-oriented. After serving in the Union Army during the Civil War, William came to New York City and opened a large and successful restaurant at Broadway and Howard Street. He then invested his earnings in the hotel business and became the manager of the Hotel Albert, located at 32 East Eleventh Street (fig. 3). On occasion, Albert stopped into the establishment to visit his brother and to take meals (fig. 4). On one of these occasions, he received his initial stimulus for Death on a Pale Horse (The Race Track), which he later recounted in detail:

“As to how I came to paint ‘The Race Track’ – it was rather an inspirational matter. At this time my brother was the proprietor of the Hotel Albert and I frequently used to get my meals there and got acquainted with many of the waiters. I got acquainted with one, but I cannot recall his name, who was unusually intelligent and a proficient waiter and I sometimes used to chat with him. This was about the time the Dwyer brothers had their phenomenal success with their stable of race horses, as they won about all the important events throughout the country for over three or four years. In one of my talks with this waiter he mentioned this fact and that this was an easy way to make money. I, of course, told him that I did not consider it so, as there was always ‘many a slip between the cup and the lip,’ and advised him to be careful. Not long after this, in the month of May, the Brooklyn Handicap was run, and the Dwyer brothers had entered their celebrated horse, Hanover, to win the race. The day before the race I dropped into my brother’s hotel and had a little chat with this waiter, and he told me that he had saved up $500 [equivalent to around $15,000 today] and that he had placed every penny of it on Hanover winning this race. The next day the race was run, and as racegoers will probably remember, Hanover came in third. I was immediately reminded that my friend the waiter had lost all his money. That dwelt on my mind, as for some reason it impressed me very much, so much so that I went around to my brother’s hotel for breakfast the next morning, and was shocked to find my waiter friend had shot himself the evening before. This fact formed a cloud over my mind that I could not throw off, and ‘The Race Track’ is the result” (Sherman 1920, 46-48).


Figure 3. Hotel Albert, ca. 1907.

Figure 4. Hotel Albert dining room, ca. 1907.

Figure 5. Hanover, ca. 1887.

Figure 6. Monmouth Park, Eatontown, NJ, 1880.


The Dwyer Brothers Stable was a successful thoroughbred racing team owned and operated by the brothers Philip Dwyer (1844-1917) and Michael Dwyer (1847-1906) (see Barnes and Wright 2018). The Dwyer brothers earned their fortunes in the Brooklyn meat packing industry and then founded their extremely successful horse racing operation in 1876. Over the next fifteen years, Dwyer horses won five Travers Stakes, five Belmont Stakes, two Kentucky Derbies, and a Preakness Stakes. They maintained a stable that included several U.S. Champions, but their most famous racer was Hanover, the American “Horse of the Year” in 1887 (fig. 5).

Hanover won his first seventeen races, his greatest triumph coming at the Belmont Stakes, held in June 1887 at the Jerome Park Racetrack in The Bronx. He won the Belmont by an amazing 15 lengths. Because of this great victory, Hanover was an overwhelming favorite to win the inaugural Brooklyn Derby (or “Brooklyn Handicap”), held in July 1887 at the (now-defunct) Gravesend Race Track near the Coney Island amusement parks. And, in spite of Ryder’s apparently foggy recollection quoted above, Hanover did, in fact, win the Brooklyn Handicap in 1887. It was an incredible year for the steed, a year in which Hanover started twenty-seven races, won twenty times, finished second five times, finished third only once, and finished completely “out of the money” also only once (National Museum of Racing 2023). The only time Hanover finished worse than third in 1887 was at the Omnibus Stakes, held in late July at Monmouth Park in Eatontown, New Jersey (American Classic Pedigrees 2023) (fig. 6).

A bettor who makes a “win wager” receives a large “payout” if their chosen horse wins the race. Since this is a risky bet, it has a high payout. A bettor who makes a “place wager” receives a payout if their chosen horse finishes either first or second. A bettor who makes a “show wager” receives a payout if their chosen horse comes in either first, second, or third. Hanover’s remarkable winning percentage in 1887 (74%) led Ryder’s waiter friend to believe the horse was basically a “sure thing” to win, so he placed a very chancy “win wager” on Hanover, apparently, at the Omnibus Stakes. And when Hanover came in third, he, unfortunately, received no payout whatsoever. A safer show wager would have resulted in at least a small payout, and presumably, Ryder’s friend would not have taken his own life.

The Concept

Like many Romantic painters, Albert Pinkham Ryder was stimulated by famous literary sources, from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (see Constance, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (see With Sloping Mast and Dipping Prow, Smithsonian American Art Museum), to the vivid texts of the Bible (Homer 1961, 280). Exhibitions often juxtapose Ryder’s paintings with explanatory labels quoting such texts, shining a light on his work’s deepest meanings. Unlike some other Romantic artists, though, Ryder did not merely illustrate literary sources; rather, he created “pictorial dramas” encouraged by transcendent themes, translating them into something purely visual and “purely individual” (Goodrich 1949). This holds true for Death on a Pale Horse.

Ryder suggested the suicide of his waiter friend motivated him to paint Death on a Pale Horse. However, the suicide occurred in 1888, and he did not begin his painting until eight years later (ca. 1896); he then labored over it for another dozen more years (until 1908). This is a prime example of his “tortoise-like pace.” Significantly, when Ryder worked on the painting, his closest family members died in succession: his mother in 1893; his brother William in 1898; and, finally, in 1900, his father passed away following a long illness. In these years, it may have seemed to the artist that, sadly, death was continually galloping through his life. In 1928, the director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, William Milliken, proposed that in the Cleveland painting, Ryder “deals with the eternal problem of death, not in any mood of morbid curiosity, but instead with an inevitability,” which is characteristic of the subject matter itself (Milliken 1928, 65).

Ryder believed he suffered from a nervous condition, what today we would call an anxiety disorder, and this condition was undoubtedly exacerbated by losing his dearest family members. After his mother died, he sought support from one of his patrons, a therapist named Dr. Albert T. Sanden. Between 1895 and 1915, Dr. Sanden treated the artist at his New York City apartment and at Sanden’s upstate country home and dairy farm in Goshen, New York (Ross 2003, 86). The two men eventually became good friends and continued an active correspondence until shortly before the artist’s death. In 1907, Ryder wrote to Sanden, “There is no one in the world I feel more comfortable with than [yourself]” (Ross 2003, 91-92). At the same time Ryder was receiving treatment for his nervousness, he apparently also sought solace by reading Bible passages, specifically the sixth chapter of the book of Revelation, which is also known as “The Apocalypse.”

The Apocalypse contains some of the Bible’s most awe-inspiring figurative prose, and none of its passages is more memorable than the account of “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” who, the text says, will be sent to deal with humanity on God’s behalf at the end of the ages. The author of the Apocalypse revealed this vision:“I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, [and] one of the four beasts saying, ‘Come and see.’ And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer. And … I heard the second beast say, ‘Come and see.’ And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword. And … I heard the third beast say, ‘Come and see.’ And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand. And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, ‘A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.’ And … I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, ‘Come and see.’ And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him [emphasis added]. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth” (Revelation 6:1-8 KJV).


One of Ryder’s artistic heroes, the American painter Washington Allston (1779-1843), said for Romantic and visionary artists, it was “impossible to conceive anything more terrible than Death on the white horse” or the three other horsemen of the Apocalypse (quoted in Flagg 1892, 43-44).

Many Romantic artists attempted to envisage and portray the highly symbolic passage, but few, if any, equaled the original text’s blend of simplistic language and fantastic description, nor its palpable sense of sublime terror (see Considine 1944). The Anglo-Irish philosopher Edmund Burke (1729-1797), who anticipated the Romantic movement, defined “the sublime” as an artistic effect that produces the strongest emotions; whatever “operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime” (Burke 1757, 58). Perhaps the two visual artists who most closely captured the terror of the Apocalypse’s text were the German Renaissance painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) and Albert Pinkham Ryder.

In Dürer’s woodcut print entitled “The Four Horsemen,” of 1498, he attempted to hold faithfully to the biblical text (fig. 7). Dürer’s first three riders go forth with power, spreading war, plagues, and famine. Below is the fourth rider, Death, a withered old man with a long white beard, hollow eyes, and a gaping mouth (fig. 8). The emaciated rider sits atop a similarly emaciated horse with a pitifully exposed ribcage, who tramples indiscriminately over humanity. Death wields a trident, which he employs to fling bodies into the jaws of a ravenous Hellmouth. His unfortunate victims include a shrieking peasant, a common housewife, a dandified merchant, a horrified burgher, and a tonsured priest. The gruesome harvest includes the poor and the rich, the mighty and the humble (see related biblical passages Ecclesiastes 9:5; Hebrews 9:27). Dürer borrowed from the medieval literary and pictorial allegory known as the Dance of Death or Danse Macabre, in which Death was symbolized as a dancing skeleton who merrily leads a cross-section of society toward the grave (see Eisler, 1948) (fig. 10).


Figure 7 and 8 Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen, 1498. 


Public Domain.


Albert Pinkham Ryder departed from Renaissance (and medieval) iconographic conventions by separating the figure of Death from the other horsemen, which suggests Ryder’s true intention. His image is more a meditation on a theme than an illustration of a biblical text. Ryder also placed Death at the center of his composition, and, instead of representing an aged and ailing man, Ryder’s Death more closely resembles the skeleton of a Danse Macabre or illustrations of the personification of death known as “the Grim Reaper” (figs. 9-11). To underscore the latter association, the artist took away Death’s traditional trident (fig. 8) and gave him the Grim Reaper’s preferred harvesting tool, a scythe (fig. 11).

Figure 9. Detail of fig. 2.

Figure 10. Swiss engraving of Death Dancing with a Cook. Public Domain.

Figure 11. French illustration of the Grim Reaper. Public Domain.


From the Middle Ages onward, European and American artists almost invariably presented the Death figure of the biblical Apocalypse as still living, though just barely. He will bring death to humanity but is not quite dead himself. The only major exception to this convention predating Ryder’s image was a drawing by the English painter John Hamilton Mortimer (1740-1779). Mortimer’s drawing has been lost but is nonetheless known by an etched copy circulated by another artist in 1775 (fig. 12). One art historian described Mortimer’s scene as a “horrible imagining,” a prime example of a “conspicuous current of ‘Gothic’ terror which first emerged in British art in the 1770’s” (Ziff 1970, 529). Ryder seems to have been aware of the widely-circulated etching. As Ryder would do a century later, Mortimer conceived of Death as an isolated skeletal horseman. Mortimer also used a dark, threatening sky as a foreboding backdrop to intensify his drama. Ryder’s setting is similar. William Milliken saw echoes of Ryder’s ghostly horseman in the “livid clouds” and “weird patches of deep blue” of his ghostly sky (Milliken 1928, 71). Mortimer’s disturbing drawing inspired later artists of various inclinations, including Benjamin West, William Blake, and the poet Charles Baudelaire (Ziff 1970, 532), and perhaps now, Albert Pinkham Ryder should be added to this illustrious list.


Figure 12. An etched copy of John Mortimer’s Death on a Pale Horse, 1775. Public Domain.


Ryder made other interesting iconographic choices. The author of the biblical Apocalypse wrote, “I looked, and behold a pale horse: and the name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him” (Revelation 6:8). Although ostensibly, Ryder distilled this passage to its absolute essentials, he did not forget to include Hell. The biblical term transliterated as “Hell” or “Hades” from an original Greek term (ᾅδης) is an equivalent of the Hebrew term Sheol(שְׁאוֹל), the dark realm of the dead inhabited by disembodied spirits. The Hell accompanying Death on a Pale Horse is often represented as a mysterious, quasi-mythological beast, such as Dürer’s Hellmouth or Mortimer’s dragon-like creature (figs. 8, 12). Ryder decided on a snake, specifically a hooded cobra, a species that is not indigenous to North America but ranges widely across Asia and Africa (fig. 13). It seems, though, that Ryder did not intend to associate Hell with a place but to associate Hell with evil or temptation, particularly with the uncontrolled desire for money, or greed. To make this connection, it is necessary to go back and reconsider how the artist described his initial inspiration.


Figure 13. Detail of fig. 2.


Ryder said when he was speaking with his ill-fated friend at the Albert Hotel, the waiter brought up the racehorse Hanover’s impressive record and his belief that betting on the horse offered “an easy way to make money.” Ryder gave an intriguing response: “I, of course, told him that I did not consider it so, as there was always ‘many a slip between the cup and the lip’ [emphasis added], and advised him to be careful.” The artist referenced an ancient proverb originally attributed to the third century B.C. Greek poet Lycophron, but often repeated in European and English literature, including in Charles Dickens’s last completed novel, Our Mutual Friend (see Hecimovich 1995). The proverb’s perceived truth is that even though a prospect may appear very promising, a person should not be overconfident about future success. A related idiomatic expression is “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

Albert Pinkham Ryder was a spiritually minded person, and he may have found his inspiration from a similar biblical passage: “Man proposes, but God disposes” (Proverbs 19:21 TLB). Ryder advised his friend to recognize the role of uncontrollable destiny in his life and to not be unduly tempted by the lure of easy money. The snake Ryder included in his painting brings to mind the biblical book of Genesis, which describes how a “serpent” (or “snake” [נָחַשׁ]) tempted Adam and Eve to eat forbidden fruit growing in the garden of Eden and that as a result of giving into their temptations, they died (Genesis 3:1-19). Perhaps Ryder saw parallels in his friend’s story. He succumbed to the lure of temptation and, as a result, was gathered up by Death on a Pale Horse.

Another element that merits attention in Ryder’s painting and is an element that is easily overlooked but is still ripe with symbolic meaning: namely, the way the artist attended to movement. Surprisingly, Ryder makes the pale horse his most active element. The author of the Apocalypse used the Greek term chlōros (χλωρός) to describe the horse’s color. The term does not denote simply a paleness but specifically signifies the insipid yellowish-green tint that characterizes cadavers and other decaying life forms (see Mark 6:39). Like his deathly rider, the horse is beginning to rot and putrefy and turn yellowish-green. Although Ryder painted his horse with this sickening hue (fig. 9), he also flouted expectations by depicting a surprisingly healthy and active animal. Indeed, Ryder’s horse more closely resembles Hanover than Dürer’s sickly steed (figs. 5, 8).

In the sinister contest Ryder portrays, Death and his speedy mount are the sole competitors; at the end of this race, the race of life, the “phantom rider,” and his “phantom horse” will inevitably win (Milliken 1928, 71). The horse gallops at a furious pace without caution. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s conservation department conducted an x-ray analysis of Ryder’s painting, which revealed the artist originally placed the animal’s hoofs under its body in the natural pose of a running horse, but later decided to splay the legs unnaturally (see Muybridge 1979, xv-xix). He apparently did this to emphasize the horse’s speed (Cole, 2023). There is another peculiarity: Ryder’s horse races clockwise around the track. This goes against the norm in the United States, where horses traditionally race counterclockwise. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s American Paintings Curator has speculated that Ryder intended to convey the message that in the natural progression of each person’s life, death is always riding toward us in the opposite direction, and as time passes, the distance between us and our demise gets smaller and smaller (Cole 2023).

The message that death is inevitable is underscored by the last remaining iconographic feature: the rotting tree on the right side of Ryder’s composition (fig. 14). The remains of the tree are fixed and stationary, in contrast to the racing horse but bloom with symbolism. Ryder was arguably America’s last great Romantic landscape artist, and his art was partly indebted to New York State’s Hudson River School, a group of Romantic landscape painters known for infusing nature with allegorical spirituality (Kelly 1989, 174). For example, the Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) often used a tree that had been blasted and destroyed by lightening as “a substitute for a human being [and] as a potent metaphor for the endless cycle of life and death” (Ellis 2019, 4) (fig. 15). If Ryder intended to portray Death and his pale horse setting off at the beginning of their race, then it was surely no accident that he placed a lifeless tree at their finish line.


Figure 14. Detail of fig. 2 


Figure 15. Frederic Church, Storm in the Mountains, 1847. Public Domain.


Aftermath and Conclusion

As Albert Pinkham Ryder aged, he seemed to dwell more and more on death and on his own demise. This may help explain why he chose to live modestly and was obsessed with his artistic legacy. Late in life, he told a visitor to his studio, “The artist needs but a roof, a crust of bread and his easel, and all the rest God gives him in abundance” (Ryder 1905, 10-11). However, even though Ryder lived without physical comforts, this was by choice, not by necessity. During his lifetime, many of Ryder’s pictures sold for in excess of a thousand dollars, and he had “ready buyers for his works even before they were far along on the easel, [and] even if he lacked the ability to bring them to completion” (Broun 1989, 138). In fact, his most financially rewarding work turned out to be Death on a Pale Horse. The artist’s friend (and occasional dealer), Charles Fitzpatrick, left this account:

[Around 1910] I had an office on Broadway. [A collector] who was gathering quite a few of [Ryder’s] pictures had one on the next block. We would meet occasionally, and he would ask me how the old man was, if he was working, etc. … [At one of our meetings] I told him a man from Brooklyn called quite a few times lately who was interested in the Race Track picture. He immediately became interested (I noticed this) and asked how much Ryder was asking for it. I told him I thought seven thousand dollars, and the man was coming in a few days to close the deal. The collector was down in a few days and closed with Ryder for seven thousand five hundred dollars. … The collector was a good sport and had plenty of money … [he] was placing his money on the future market” (Fitzpatrick 1984, 11).


The man Fitzpatrick referred to was the Brooklyn art collector and publisher Louis A. Lehmaier, who, at the beginning of the twentieth century, amassed one of the finest collections of American Romantic and Tonalist paintings. According to the provenance records at the Cleveland Museum of Art, at some point before 1913, Lehmaier returned Death on a Pale Horse to Ryder’s studio, perhaps so the artist could make some final touches, and then it reached the hands of Ryder’s friend and therapist, Dr. Albert T. Sanden.

Around the same time, the house in which Ryder lived on Fifteenth Street was closed for remodeling, and he moved a block away to a two-room flat on Sixteenth Street. His health quickly declined, and he was taken to Saint Vincent’s Hospital in Greenwich Village for four months. When he was finally released, Ryder was frail and had nowhere to go, so his friends, the Fitzpatrick’s offered to take him in at their new home in Elmhurst, on Long Island (fig. 16). He lived there in seclusion for a little over a year, when he finally passed away March 29, 1917, a week after his seventieth birthday. In the end, Death and his pale horse finally, inevitably, caught up to Albert Pinkham Ryder as well.

Figure 16. The house where Ryder died 

9103 50th Avenue, Elmhurst, New York, 2023.

About the author: James W. Ellis, PhD, JD, is an freelance writer and a former Research Assistant Professor in the Academy of Visual Arts at Hong Kong Baptist University. Before moving to East Asia, he lived, worked, and was educated in the State of New York, which remains his primary research interest and passion.


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