Published: July 9, 2007
A gifted American storyteller in paint, William Tylee Ranney (1813‱857) depicted mythic heroes of his time, both past and present †soldiers, pioneers, trappers, hunters †as exemplars of courage and independence. At a time when the country struggled for national unity and a sense of American identity, Ranney offered an inspiring interpretation of the history, character and future of the United States and its people.
Like so many of his countrymen, Ranney was an optimist, a romantic and a patriot. His paintings, expressing ambitions and concerns of mid-Nineteenth Century citizens, were often reproduced as widely disseminated prints that helped shape the aspirations of a burgeoning nation.
Regarded as an important yet underappreciated American artist, his relative obscurity is due in part to the brevity of his career †he painted for little more than a decade, dying of tuberculosis at age 44.
Well-known and highly respected by his fellow artists, Ranney is best remembered today for his narrative canvases of the settling of the American West. As this exhibition underscores, however, his range of work included portraits, lighthearted genre scenes, hunting and sporting vignettes and historical subjects. The exhibition organizers argue that, “Taken together, Ranney’s paintings present a portrait of early American life and westward expansion while at the same time evoking a mythology that vividly reflected the artist’s time and place.”
Some 60 works comprise “Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney,” on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through August 19. It was organized by Sarah E. Boehme, formerly of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo. (where it began its tour) and now director of the Stark Museum of Art in Orange, Texas. She notes that new information about the painter and recently discovered paintings by him offer “new insights” in this “unparalleled gathering of the artist’s most significant paintings.”
Born in Middletown, Conn., the son of a sea captain, Ranney moved at age 13 to Fayetteville, N.C., where he lived with an uncle and trained as a tinsmith. His experiences in this bustling gateway to the West filled his imagination with a grand sense of the American character and landscape.
Moving to Brooklyn around 1833, Ranney began studying drawing and painting. Three years later, inspired by news of the siege of the Alamo, he volunteered to serve in the war for Texas independence. During his brief sojourn in Texas, he absorbed a wealth of observations about the culture, mores and landscape of the American West that would inspire his most famous paintings. His wife Margaret later observed that her husband was “so charmed by everything he saw&⁴he wild enchanting prairies, the splendid horses,” that he never would have returned East “but for the strong love he had for his mother.”
Back East, Ranney launched his career in earnest; by the early 1840s he was regularly exhibiting figure paintings at the National Academy of Design and the American Art-Union in New York City. He became an associate member of the National Academy in 1850.
After marrying in 1848, Ranney moved to New Jersey, eventually settling in West Hoboken. An enthusiastic sportsman, he filled his studio with hunting and fishing gear, a menagerie of animals and artifacts from the American West †all of which appeared in his paintings.
The popularity of Ranney’s genre subjects and historical paintings peaked in the mid-1850s, about the time he fell ill with tuberculosis. Reflecting their esteem and affection, several of his artistic contemporaries †including William Sidney Mount and Arthur F. Tait †completed his unfinished canvases and sold them to benefit his widow and two sons.
Largely self-taught, Ranney made up for his lack of formal training by studying the work of contemporaries and closely observing people and places around him. He started out painting straightforward, deftly brushed and remarkably sophisticated portraits. His early “Self-portrait,” circa 1839, suggests an ambitious young man with a determined gaze. In his later “Self-portrait,” dating to around 1856, the bewhiskered Ranney maintains the intense air that marked his earlier likeness. Also displayed in the exhibition are affectionate likenesses of family members, including his handsome, serene wife.
Ranney’s sunny genre images of ordinary people going about their everyday activities responded to widespread enthusiasm for depictions of average, especially middle-class, citizens. In the face of midcentury turmoil over slavery and other issues, the artist consistently conveyed happy messages of harmony and well-being.
Thus, his portrait of an anonymous, ubiquitous New York street urchin, “Match Boy,” 1845, offers an appealing image of a cherubic, young street merchant peddling his wares. In his far more ambitious, complex figurative paean to the joys of rural childhood, “The Sleigh Ride,” 1852, conveys the high spirits of a gaggle of rambunctious school children as they pile onto an already overcrowded sleigh for a wintry ride home from their one-room schoolhouse.
As art historian and director of the Ranney catalogue raisonné project Linda Bantel observes, “A plethora of details&mall sleds, blackboards, books, book bags and a dog yapping&xcitedly&ot only add to the confusion but also create a sense of compelling realism and spirited ambience.” “The Sleigh Ride” was, understandably, a hit when displayed at the National Academy.
An ambitious, deftly composed canvas, “Virginia Wedding,” 1854, which measures 54½ by 82½ inches, captures the festive mood of young revelers gathering on a Southern plantation following an Eighteenth Century wedding.
An avid sportsman himself, Ranney drew on his own experiences and paid careful attention to detail in a series of memorable hunting and fishing scenes set in northern New Jersey marshes. Utilizing the array of hunting equipment in his studio and a collection of dogs and enlisting West Hoboken neighbors as models, he presented anglers and hunters as eager, competent masters of nature and machinery who successfully brought food to the table.
The intense fisherman, watchful dog and the luminous marshland setting in “The First Fish of the Season,” 1849, reflect the painter’s familiarity with such scenes. In recording what Bantel terms the “realistic details of everyday objects” and conveying the “emotional and practical experience of all fisherman,” Ranney created a masterpiece of sporting art.
As a duck hunter himself, Ranney’s knowledge of the tactics, excitement and enjoyment of the sport, combined with his ability to capture mirrorlike, tranquil marsh water, make “Duck Shooters,” 1849, a memorable image. The tense eagerness of the hunters and their dog are palpable, in contrast to the luminist-inspired tranquility of the scene.
“Setter with Woodcock,” circa 1855, is a large-scale, empathetic depiction of what was likely a specific setter, shown waiting obediently for his unseen master to claim a bird from his mouth.
A staunch patriot, Ranney underscored his pride in the nation’s past by depicting inspirational scenes from American history, particularly the American Revolution. He often showed such military leaders as George Washington and General Francis (“Swamp Fox”) Marion as heroic figures with an empathy for those under their command. As the exhibition organizers put it, “His unusual interest in the ordinary, nameless citizen-soldier expressed Ranney’s own democratic outlook and the heartfelt values of patriotism and fortitude that his paintings meant to convey to his audience.”
In “Marion Crossing the Pedee,” circa 1850, the “Swamp Fox” †at the far left on horseback †mingles with his motley band of followers as they traverse the Pedee River in South Carolina around 1780. Marion is shown as part of a crowded group †in contrast to the focus on Washington above the crowd in Emmanuel Leutze’s famed “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” painted about the same time and shown in New York in 1851.
“Veterans of 1776 Returning from the War,” 1848, portrays lighthearted citizen-soldiers coming home at the end of the American Revolution. Painted at the time of the Mexican War, Ranney’s image reinforced the idea that war veterans were both nation-builders and freedom fighters.
Images of episodes when Daniel Boone and his equally intrepid brother Squire explored the Kentucky frontier were popular Ranney subjects. In several paintings, he depicted Daniel and a hardy group of followers as they first viewed the panorama of the Kentucky wilderness from the Cumberland Mountains.
“Squire Boone Crossing the Mountains with Stores for his Brother Daniel, Encamped in the Wilds of Kentucky,” 1852, highlights the stoic resolve of the sibling returning from the East leading a pack horse loaded with supplies for Daniel, who had remained behind to protect their hunting claims. The alert pose and focused gaze of the rider suggest that he has heard something that might signal nearby Indians. “Ranney used Squire to represent the larger symbolic vanguard of civilization and a view that implies that the East would be the provider for the West,” observes art historian Peter H. Hassrick in the catalog.
Greatly influenced by his observations during his sojourn in Texas, Ranney presented the West as a place of open land, wild mustangs †and opportunity for sturdy pioneers. Starting in the 1840s, after he came back East, he celebrated the strong individualism and manly virtues of Mexican, French and American trappers and vaqueros who sought furs, horses and land in newly opened regions. Ranney especially admired qualities of courage, determination, strength and initiative that helped fabled “mountain men” conquer the frontier.
Although the era of the trapper was fading, Ranney immortalized their fortitude and adventurousness in paintings and engravings that showed them in peril. In “The Trapper’s Last Shot,” circa 1850, a lone horseman, apparently running out of ammunition, peers at a group of distant Indians whom he has eluded thus far. His terrorized horse, frozen in place, adds to the palpable sense of danger in this engraving.
In the somewhat romanticized “The Wounded Trapper,” 1850, a fallen mountain man clings to his wildly rearing horse, presumably as Native Americans close in for the kill. Hassrick suggests the image was inspired by an engraving that Ranney had probably seen of a painting by French artist Theodore Gericault.
“The Lasso” and “Hunting Wild Horses,” both 1846, celebrate the daring and skill of Mexican vaqueros (models for American cowboys) as they pursued wild mustangs in the Southwest. Struggles between cowherds, representing the advance of civilization, and untamed horses, symbolizing freedom and the spirit of the West, had undoubtedly been observed by Ranney in Texas.
Responding to widespread national interest in pioneering life on the frontier, Ranney put a human/family face on groups on the westward trail. In “Advice on the Prairie,” circa 1853, a grizzled mountain man offers counsel to a family heading West. As Hassrick points out, the Madonna-like mother and child evoke the Holy Family en route to the Promised Land, as part of the country’s Manifest Destiny.
The promise of the West lies in the distance in “Halt on the Plains [or Prairie],” 1857 as three riders look to the journey ahead, while horses, cattle and dogs rest amidst a sweeping landscape shimmering in color and detail. “For American audiences,” observes Hassrick, “Ranney’s trappers&⁷ere common men of noble but protean habit&[T]his work…can be construed as a national picture, an unabashed tribute to the then-celebrated pioneer spirit.”
This ambitious and optimistic canvas was undertaken when the artist was in poor health; he died of tuberculosis that year. In his relatively brief career, William Ranney created a remarkable oeuvre of some 150 paintings that captured the can-do mentality and forward-looking attitude of a nation proud of its revolutionary heritage and focused on limitless opportunities that lay ahead. It is good that this overlooked painter †this is the first comprehensive exhibition of his art in 40 years †who reflected so much of the spirit and values of mid-Nineteenth Century America is given his just due.
The 226-page catalog, written by Bantel and Hassrick, with essays by Boehme and Mark F. Bockrath, includes a compilation of all of Ranney’s known works and commentaries on major paintings and works on paper. Published by Buffalo Bill Historical Society, it sells for $59.95 (hardcover).
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is on Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street. For information, 215-763-8100 or www.philamuseum.org .
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