Art | Framing America's early aspirations

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During the first half of the 19th century, the fledgling United States began to expand inexorably westward and to develop the mythology of "Americanness" that we continue to celebrate every Fourth of July.

William Ranney (1813-57) and many of his contemporaries expressed this nationalistic consciousness in their paintings. Turning away from Europe, they painted popular, everyday subjects that spoke to ordinary people.

Ranney was one of the most talented, versatile and prolific of pre-Civil War American artists, yet he hasn't received nearly as much attention as the several generations of painters who worked later in the 19th century.

This is partly because his career was cut short by tuberculosis; he died at 44. But mainly it's because, in retrospect, the art of his generation often seems excessively sentimental, melodramatic and propagandistic in the way it romanticizes not only pioneer life but the relentless "conquering" of the American West.

Pre-Civil War painting hasn't received as much scholarly respect or public exposure as that of the later Golden Age, at least on the East Coast. Chances are, you haven't heard of Ranney; the last exhibition of his work in the region was in 1991 at the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, focusing on his genre scenes from the East.

Now the Philadelphia Museum of Art has put up a larger Ranney show of 52 oils and 14 works on paper that covers the full range of his career. Organized at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., it expands our knowledge of the artist, thanks in large part to Philadelphia art historian Linda Bantel, former director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Bantel contributed a major catalog essay based on 10 years of research into the artist's life.

We can learn a lot about the evolution of early America from Ranney's images if we consider them in the social context of their time. We can also learn to regard their homespun visual character as a virtue rather than a liability. Ranney lived during a time of relentless optimism about the future and the potential for every (white male) American to achieve material comfort and become master of his own destiny.

The artist himself typified this attitude. Born in Middletown, Conn., he relocated to Fayetteville, N.C., at age 13 to live with an uncle and train as a tinsmith. By 1833, when he was about 20, he had moved to Brooklyn to study painting and drawing, although as Bantel reports, it can't be determined where or with whom he might have studied. This might seem a minor point, but Ranney's early paintings indicate that if his formal training was limited, he was blessed with considerable natural ability.

The Texas war of independence inspired Ranney to enlist in the Texas army in 1836. Why he did so is another mystery, although his wife subsequently wrote that "his sympathies [were] aroused by the sufferings of his countrymen."

In any event, Ranney returned to New York in early 1837 with a number of drawings made in Texas. His time there, less than a year, conferred on him some credibility as a "western" artist, although as the exhibition indicates, he could not have seen some of the subjects he subsequently painted.

After his Texas adventure, Ranney began his professional career in New York as a portrait painter, and by 1845, he was exhibiting regularly at the National Academy of Design. The few examples in the exhibition, such as a portrait of his wife and one of his younger son, mark him as accomplished but not exceptional in this genre.

His reputation rests more solidly on genre and history subjects and hunting scenes, which, by 1851, he produced at his home and studio across the Hudson River in West Hoboken, N.J., now Union City.

The history paintings are, as one would expect, inventions. His most ambitious one depicts Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion, the fabled "Swamp Fox," crossing the Pedee River (the colonial name for what is now the Pee Dee River) in South Carolina with a band of militia.

The painting, dated 1850, displays Ranney's ability to organize a complex multi-figure tableau. Daniel Boone's first view of Kentucky is more intentionally iconic; the figures gazing out from a table rock might have been posed in Central Park, had it existed in 1849.

Ranney's genre and hunting scenes democratize high art in a way that now seems American to the core. The most exuberant are two paintings of sleighing parties. By contrast, the softly colored scenes of duck hunters in shallow-draft boats slowly gliding toward their prey are quiet and suffused with an exaggerated sense of anticipation, conveyed by the basilisk stares of the hunters and their dogs.

Ranney's western scenes are far more spirited and dramatic. In many of these paintings, horses capture one's attention, even when, as in The Retreat, humans are engaged in some desperate activity - in this case, riding for their lives. Ranney's horses are marvelously modeled and animated whether just standing or, as in Hunting Wild Horses, struggling to free themselves from captivity. Even their eyes strike sparks.

Like many of his contemporaries - George Caleb Bingham, William Sidney Mount, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, Richard Caton Woodville, Charles Deas, and John Mix Stanley, to name a few - Ranney was an accomplished storyteller. His later pictures addressed the general theme of American destiny or, as the exhibition subtitle puts it, "Forging an American Identity."

It's natural to read the western pictures, in particular, symbolically as well as literally. Wild stallions (nature) are tamed; intrepid trappers patrol the mountains, surviving through courage, stamina and determination. Settlers in wagon trains brave the dangers of a continental transmigration. The wilderness is being mastered by ordinary men and women of extraordinary character and persistence.

There's little room on Ranney's stage for Native Americans, except in the background of chase scenes. In this exhibition, there aren't any town views or domestic interiors, either. Ranney is painting allegories of true grit, such as the beleaguered buckskin-clad trapper, down to his last rifle cartridge, turning in the saddle to get a fix on his aboriginal pursuers.

Ranney's view of the American frontier as seen from West Hoboken isn't so much historical realism as the efflorescence of an enduring American mythology. Yet the zeitgeist that he recreates rings true, which makes him a marvelously entertaining and instructive cicerone for this period of our national life.


Art | Painting America

"Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney" continues at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, 26th Street and the Parkway, through Aug. 19. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays, and to 8:45 p.m. Fridays. Admission is $12 general, $9 for visitors 62 and older, and $8 for students with ID and visitors 13 to 18. Pay what you wish Sundays. Information: 215-763-8100, 215-684-7500 or www.philamuseum.org.


Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or esozanski@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http:// go.philly.com/edwardsozanski.