The Race Track or Death on a Pale Horse

Ryder, Albert

Primary Category: Visual Arts / Painting/Drawing

Genre: Oil on canvas

Annotated by:
Bertman, Sandra
  • Date of entry: Jul-28-2006
  • Last revised: Aug-23-2006


A skeletal figure - death - sits atop a horse and brandishes a scythe. His horse, presently in front of the viewer, runs the wrong way along the racetrack. The track stretches far into the distance, all the way to the horizon. The landscape and sky are of muted color; a solitary dead tree bordering the racetrack on the right side of the painting sets the emotional tone of the landscape. At the bottom of the painting, a snake winds its way along the ground.


This painting took its inspiration from a horse race that took place in New York in the year 1888. According to Charles Fitzpatrick, who lived in the same building as Ryder and knew him quite well, "The racetrack picture painted by Ryder was inspired by the account of a man who mortgaged his home to play on a tip from a friend. He lost his all and committed suicide. Sometimes, I think Ryder had a little on the same race." (See p.11 of "Ryder Remembered," by Kendall Taylor, Philip Evergood, Charles Fitzpatrick. Archives of American Art Journal, Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 2-16,1984) When Albert heard of the suicide, he composed this painting, which he worked on and changed over the course of subsequent decades.

The snake, understood variously as a symbol of temptation, mortality, or decay, slithers along side the rider, as though urging on the backwards race. The track, perhaps a metaphor for life, is barren and bleak, and life seems a simple course that emerges from and returns to the Beyond. Death rides upon the road with apparent gusto.

The painting invites one to consider the brevity of existence, along with the motivations that drive men's lives. Ryder transforms the pursuit of money through gambling into a macabre gauntlet of despair and dissolution.


Painted 1896-1908. Alternate title "The Reverse"; Ryder has Death riding in reverse to the usual direction.

Primary Source

Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio