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Advice on the Prairie, c. 1853
William Ranney, American
Oil on canvas
38 3/4 x 55 1/4 inches
Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming.
Gift of Mrs. J. Maxwell Moran

Advice on the Prairie, c. 1853 William Ranney, American Oil on canvas 38 3/4 x 55 1/4 inches Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming. Gift of Mrs. J. Maxwell Moran


Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney

June 26–August 19, 2007

The first retrospective of the work of the narrative painter William Ranney (1813–1857) in 40 years, this exhibition brings together some 60 paintings and drawings that open a window on American culture in the mid-nineteenth century. A popular artist in his time, Ranney was best known for his western scenes, but he was also praised for his lively hunting and sporting pictures, his historical and rural genre scenes, and his portraits. This exhibition surveys all aspects of Ranney's work, including many paintings that rarely travel and others that are newly rediscovered.

Organized thematically, the exhibition explores Ranney's work in the context of westward expansion and the growing sense of a national identity in the mid-1800s. In dramatic depictions of western exploration, adventure, and migration, such as Boone's First View of Kentucky, The Wounded Trapper, and Advice on the Prairie, Ranney combined a fascination with the romance and danger of the West with a celebration of its prospects. These narratives resonated with an American public that eagerly sought out images and stories about life on the frontier.

<i>First Fish of the Season</i>, 1849 
William Ranney, American
Oil on canvas
27 x 40 inches
Private Collection

First Fish of the Season, 1849 William Ranney, American Oil on canvas 27 x 40 inches Private Collection

Critics saw Ranney's western pictures as thoroughly American, a trait highly valued as nationalistic fervor swept across the United States. This patriotic spirit likewise burns in Ranney's historical subjects, such as Veterans of 1776 Returning from the War. His rural themes of children at play and of sporting and hunting, as seen in First Fish of the Season, were also praised as typically American, and they appealed to a large audience of nostalgic urban patrons.

Ranney's rich narratives give viewers a chance to see how Americans saw and defined themselves more than a century ago. His art offers a portrait of American life and opinion before the Civil War, particularly the country's view of its own history and westward expansion. Charming and lively in detail, Ranney's paintings vividly reflect the artist's time and place as they record the formation of a national mythology that helped Americans identify themselves, understand their past, and shape their future.


This exhibition is organized by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming.


Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming • May 13–August 14, 2006
The Speed Art Museum, Louisville, Kentucky • September 29, 2006–January 1, 2007
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas • February 10–May 13, 2007
Philadelphia Museum of Art • June 26–August 19, 2007

Related Installation

In contrast to William Ranney's dramatizations of pioneer life, a number of his contemporaries dedicated themselves to documenting Native American culture.In conjunction with this exhibition, The Artist as Witness: Images of Native Americans by William Ranney's Contemporaries is being held in gallery 108, first floor. Among the works on view in the installation are two canvases by John Neagle (1796–1865), who created compelling portraits of Native Americans, and George Catlin (1796–1872), an artist who, keenly aware of the threat western expansion posed to Indian culture, recorded a full spectrum of their activities and environment.

Main Building

About William Ranney

William Ranney was born in Middletown, Connecticut, in 1813 and raised in North Carolina. He began to develop his artistic interest by age 13, and moved to Brooklyn to study art about 1833. Desire for adventure, however, led him southwest in 1836 to join the Texas War of Independence from Mexico. In his six months there, he absorbed lessons from the culture and landscape of the American West that would inspire him for the rest of his life, and he made numerous sketches that would later serve as the foundation of his many western scenes.

He returned to New York about 1837 and embarked on his art career in earnest, submitting paintings to the National Academy of Design and the American Art-Union in New York. In the mid-1840s, perhaps in response to the outbreak of the Mexican War and the rise of nationalist spirit, Ranney began producing scenes of frontiersman, trappers, and pioneers. These quickly gained favor with critics and audiences, who praised the pursuit of American subjects by Ranney and artists such as William Sidney Mount (1807–1868) and George Caleb Bingham (1811–1879).

In 1853, Ranney constructed a studio in West Hoboken (now part of Union City), New Jersey, with his wife, Margaret, and two sons. It was in this studio that Ranney created many of his most important works. His proximity to New York allowed him continued access to its exhibitions and art markets, but the rural setting of his home provided opportunities to hunt and fish—which naturally informed his paintings. Ranney filled his studio with artifacts such as guns, saddles, and riding gear, and he built a stable to house the horses that appear in his paintings. His pictures enjoyed great success, and often were widely distributed as engravings.

Ranney's early death in 1857 of tuberculosis, at the age of 44, was lamented by his fellow artists, who helped arrange a memorial exhibition to benefit the artist's family. Newspaper and journal obituaries that followed hailed Ranney for his skill at portraying American subjects and characters, and the New York Times praised him as "in every sense of the word, an American artist." He produced about 150 paintings in his brief lifetime.

&lt;i&gt;Self-Portrait&lt;/i&gt;, c. 1855
William Ranney, American
Oil on academy board
8½ x 7¼ inches
Private Collection


Supported by The Henry Luce Foundation; 1957 Charity Foundation; Mrs. J. Maxwell (Betty) Moran; Mr. Ranney Moran; The National Endowment for the Arts; and The Wyoming Arts Council, through funding from The National Endowment for the Arts and The Wyoming State Legislature. Additional support is provided by The Kathleen C. and John J. F. Sherrerd Fund for Exhibitions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.


Sarah E. Boehme • The John S. Bugas Curator of the Whitney Gallery of Western Art, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming
Kathleen Foster • The Robert L. McNeil, Jr. Curator of American Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art
Audrey Lewis • William Ranney Exhibition Coordinator, Philadelphia Museum of Art

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