Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney with a Catalogue of His Works
Buffalo Bill Historical Center, 225 pp., $59.95
Some years ago, overly optimistic and a little deluded, I decided to write my own, up-to-date version of S. Lane Faison Jr.’s highly detailed and blessedly opinionated 1958 A Guide to the Art Museums of New England. I got far enough to realize that the job probably could no longer be done properly by one person and to find, along with the expected high points, a number of unheralded masterpieces (or at least works that made me want to know more about this or that artist). High on the list of surprises was William Ranney’s Shad Fishing on the Hudson (see illustration on page 18), an oil painting dated circa 1846 in the New Britain Museum of American Art, a collection that includes work from the eighteenth century to the present and has a number of particularly fine nineteenth-century landscapes.
Shad Fishing on the Hudson stood out in this Connecticut museum and would do so in any holding of nineteenth-century American painting—though for elusive reasons. Showing four men handling their fishing nets in the middle of heaving waters—we are probably on the New Jersey side of the river in a spot looking toward 125th Street in Manhattan—Ranney’s picture might be called a piece of reporting on a local industry. It tells no story, and what we take from it are sensory and formal qualities: the way this nearly three-foot-wide oil, with its white-gray sky and silvery-green water, throws off so much pale, hazy light; the layered and diaphanous beauty of the painting of the waves; and the subtly perfect balances everywhere, from the row of poles in the water holding the nets to the quite separate ways the four men stand or sit in their boat.
What gives Ranney’s painting its charge, however, has to do with its note of sketchy elegance. Some years before it was made, the older painter George Catlin, in his portraits of Native Americans and his landscapes of tribal territories west of the Mississippi, presented what could be called an art of bravura simplicity—an art where the painter’s individual brush strokes are visible, the oil is thinly applied, and the finished painting resembles a kind of luscious drawing. Especially in the way he paints his fishermen, Ranney seems to be developing Catlin’s transparent, impromptu style. One of Ranney’s men is hardly more than an outline of a person, yet his flat, seemingly unfinished presence is what gives the picture its winning sense of being carefully planned and deftly improvised at the same time.
Shad Fishing on the Hudson, unfortunately, turns out to be as unusual a work for its creator as it is for American painting. There was nothing like it (and it wasn’t included) in the artist’s recent retrospective, “Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney.” Organized by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, it was the first comprehensive exhibition in nearly half a century for the painter, who was born in 1813 and died, of tuberculosis, in 1857. And while there were a few pictures in the exhibition that are as exceptional as Shad Fishing, and while the accompanying catalog, which is also a catalog of all the artist’s known paintings and drawings, presents a number of other first-rate pictures that were not in the exhibition, one came away from this exposure to Ranney understanding why he remains a little-known figure.
As befitting the show’s title, a fair amount of Ranney’s art presents national experiences and historical events, themes of great currency at the time. Ranney painted valiant moments connected with the Revolutionary War and with the exploration of the wilderness and the settlement of frontier lands in the years that followed. He made pictures of George Washington (at various moments in his life), Kit Carson, Daniel Boone (first seeing Kentucky), fur trappers, mountain men, families heading west in covered wagons, roundups of wild horses, and burials on the prairie. He also painted bird hunters, families sleighing, children playing, and dogs retrieving game.
By the sound of it his range was great, but in Ranney’s hands all these kinds of images feel roughly similar. He generally worked with a brushy, soft-edged (as opposed to crisply defined) manner, and he clearly responded to color in itself. There are sensitive passages in his work, as when, say, he plays the dark blue of a man’s shirt against the dark gray of the surrounding sky. In a burial scene, the freshly dug-up earth glimmers with sunlight, and The Skaters, of 1856, which shows boys on ice in the late afternoon of a winter’s day, is a satiny orchestration of white-blue and pink. But Ranney, who was self-taught, rarely restrained or keyed his color. He used it illustrationally, so that most of his paintings seem merely colorful, and his vision of people has a corresponding vagueness.
The faces of his hunters and frontiersmen, it is true, can be pleasingly free of airs. The scouts accompanying Daniel Boone appealingly resemble a group of shy freshmen. But whether they are figures of the American past or the artist’s time, sportsmen or pioneers, Ranney’s people generally come across as so many characterless stock types. (If his pictures found their way into history textbooks, a viewer today, not knowing when the painter lived, might be uncertain just when they were made.) Adding to the problem of comprehending Ranney is the fact that his strong works are done in different ways. His 1849 First Fish of the Season, a masterpiece on the subject of a man fishing and the best work in the exhibition, is unconnected in its color, drawing style, and ambition with The Skaters, and neither automatically points to Shad Fishing on the Hudson.
The idea that Ranney misused his talent is not one, however, that the authors of the present catalog seem aware of. Their chief concern is knitting his pictures together with the history of his era. Nor apparently did the artist or his contemporaries feel anything was amiss (although we can’t be sure of this as Ranney left almost no written documents of any kind). As Linda Bantel points out in her lead catalog essay, when the painter died his family could read about his achievements in several lengthy obituaries. They must also have been gratified by the attention from Ranney’s fellow artists, including William Sidney Mount, one of the era’s foremost genre painters, who finished a few pictures Ranney left incomplete.
Based in Brooklyn and Greenwich Village in the years when he was getting underway, Ranney was fully a member of New York’s growing young art world in the 1840s and 1850s, and his work sold well. By 1847, he was living across the Hudson in Weehawken, New Jersey, and by 1851, now married to Margaret Agnes O’Sullivan—the couple would have two sons—his address had become West Hoboken. He lived there, in a good-sized house near the Hackensack meadows, with a studio and stable on the grounds, for the rest of his short life.
The few personal details that have survived about Ranney, apart from his being admired by his colleagues, include his love of hunting and sports in general (he was a founder of a cricket club around 1844) and, his art makes clear, animals. His horses, with their bulging eyes and arching necks, are full of temperament, but it is his dogs, who are, in contrast, still and intent, who capture our attention. Often standing, even sitting, quite tensely, their eyes fastened onto what is before them, his various fox-hounds, beagles, and spaniels are freshly observed. Unlike Ranney’s storybook people, they seem actually to be looking at something, and thus thinking.
Ranney’s pictures show a world of some physical stress, what with frontiersmen reconnoitering, duck shooters taking aim, and horses being lassoed. But the only time I felt the physical cost of all this derring-do was in the 1850 Wounded Hound, where a hunter kneels to attend to the ear of what appears to be a bitch, and her bodily presence—her eyes are clamped shut, a delicate line of drool streams from her firmly shut jaws, and her body is tautly self-contained—communicates genuine pain.
A tensely immobile dog is the surprising star of First Fish of the Season, too. More importantly, this image of a bespectacled fellow and his canine companion in a little wooden flatboat, waiting for a bite, is believable in its every aspect. Unlike most of Ranney’s paintings, with their slightly overrich palettes and soft edges between forms, First Fish of the Season is sharply focused and stringently geared to the atmosphere of a cool-aired, serene, misty moment in early spring. Taking off from the mustard-colored dog and boat, much of the scene seems to have some degree of a brownish-tan in it.
The idea of making a picture of some figures in a boat, with a crucial part of the image being their reflections in the surrounding mirror-like water, was not original to Ranney. Four years before, George Caleb Bingham presented such a work to New York gallerygoers in his 1845 Fur Traders Descending the Missouri (long one of the prize paintings in the Metropolitan Museum), and other artists, including Mount, made extraordinary pictures on this exact theme a few years before Ranney as well. Derivative though it might be, his version holds its own. Its color is completely distinctive, as are his dual heroes. Although Ranney’s people in general are ungraspable, the fisherman here, with his air of someone hoping for the best in a zone he isn’t quite at home in, is one of the more memorable figures in nineteenth-century American art—though in the end he is upstaged by his chunky associate, whose dark, monitoring eye is dramatically if not literally the center of the picture.
In its bracing clarity about light and atmosphere, First Fish of the Season, like Shad Fishing on the Hudson, makes many of the rest of Ranney’s pictures feel like concoctions. This is not to say that in emphasizing “American” themes in his art, he was merely taking advantage of the market demands or cultural promptings of the time. Those demands were if anything a catalyst. The period of Ranney’s career, roughly the years from the mid-1840s to the mid-1850s, saw native artists attempting to present, with a confidence rarely seen before, the sheer amplitude of American life, whether in Bingham’s classically poised riverboat scenes, in Richard Caton Woodville’s haunting and ambiguous images of city life, or in landscape painting, where Frederic Church, Martin Johnson Heade, and Fitz Hugh Lane, among many others, were getting underway. The era’s sense of burgeoning national self-awareness certainly fanned American writers, considering the burst of epochal work in these years by Thoreau, Melville, Whitman, and Hawthorne.
Then, too, Ranney’s connection with his country’s past and with native themes had personal and imaginative meanings for him, if only because he had tasted life beyond the New York area. In his adolescence and then again in early manhood, this Connecticut-born artist lived with relatives in North Carolina, and in 1836, at twenty-three, he joined up to fight in the Texas war of independence, and stayed for a year.
Yet during the decade or so of his mature career Ranney seems never to have been west of West Hoboken; and his most endearing and convincing pictures are set in places close to where he lived, and, as it turns out, are about life on or near water. The background of First Fish of the Season, for example, the northern New Jersey saltwater marshes close by the painter’s home, is the setting for another atypical work, painted with atypical taut dexterity: The Lazy Fisherman, of 1850, which shows a fellow, looking less like a sportsman than an office clerk, who has, like his dog, fallen asleep while fishing.
Ranney’s best pictures, furthermore, are about experiences which are the antithesis of heroic. His shad fishermen on the Hudson are doing a job, and his anglers in the marshlands are simply trying to have a nice time. His 1855 Boys Crabbing (in the White House collection) takes the subject of kids on a dock as a pretext for a work that, like his Skaters, is about shimmery, cotton-candy colors and elegant silhouette shapes. On some level, when he wasn’t trying to be a storyteller or a historian in paint, Ranney was a comic, effervescent, and stylish master. Given this, he might be receptive to our feeling that while he didn’t succeed in encompassing the national experience, he did very well with a somewhat smaller one—that watery realm where New York meets New Jersey.