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 …