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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.
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.