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  • William Ranney's Hunting Wild Horses
  • Peter H. Hassrick

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Figure 1.

William Ranney, Hunting Wild Horses, 1846, oil on canvas, 36 x 54 ½ inches. Courtesy Museum of the American West, Autry National Center, Los Angeles.

[End Page 348]

The zoology of the Prairies has probably attracted more attention than any other feature in their natural history," wrote the western chronicler Josiah Gregg in the immensely popular account of his frontier travels, Commerce of the Prairies, in 1844. Leading off a chapter on the animals of the Southwest was what Gregg considered "by far the most noble" of the beasts, the "mustang or wild horse of the Prairies."1 More than the wily gray wolf, the fleet and nimble antelope, or the ubiquitous buffalo, the wild horse exemplified the venerated notion of freedom on the expansive southwestern grasslands. America's James Boswell, Washington Irving wrote about his brief tour of that region nearly a decade earlier, championing the wild horse as the "free rover of the prairies" and extolled the innate "pride and freedom of his nature."2 The Indian painter George Catlin had ridden across the southern plains in 1834 and was, after direct observation, compelled to claim that there existed "no other animal on the prairies so wild and so sagacious as the horse."3

Yet other observers of the period viewed the mustang from a different perspective, as an exploitable resource and bounty. The Rocky Mountain adventurer Rufus Sage regarded these shaggy animals, which were "frequently encountered four or five hundred head . . . in a single band," among a long list of wild "game," while a travel account by an unknown [End Page 349] author clearly acknowledged their economic potential. According to the account, the mustang might be harvested as a "valuable article of export, as they are innumerable, and cost only the trouble of catching" at some future date.4 Thus was revealed one of the fundamental paradoxes of the western experience, the contest between the wild, free element and the usable, tamable and marketable commodity. The tension established by these two polar interpretations of the West, along with a complex political environment, are what inform one of the earliest western works by the mid-nineteenth-century painter William Ranney, the large and ambitious oil painting called Hunting Wild Horses of 1846.5

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Figure 2.

William Ranney, Self Portrait (late), ca. 1855, oil on panel, 8 ¼ x 7 inches. Courtesy a private collection.

William Tylee Ranney (1813–1857) is known today for his charmed portraits, his spirited genre scenes, and his compelling historical works. Recognized as a leading figure in the art of mid-nineteenth-century America, he gained special attention for his depictions of the western frontiers. He had experienced the West firsthand as a young man when he served in the Texas war of independence.6 Later, as an established painter living years [End Page 350] later in West Hoboken, he was still singled out for his western identity. The critic Henry Tuckerman noted that Ranney's studio, for example,

formed a startling contrast to most of the peaceful haunts of the same name, in the adjacent metropolis [New York]; it was so constructed as to receive animals; guns, pistols, and cutlasses hung on the walls; and these, with curious saddles and primitive riding gear, might lead a visitor to imagine he had entered a pioneer's cabin or border chieftain's hut: such an idea would, however, have been at once dispelled by a glance at the many sketches and studies which proclaimed that an artist, and not a bush-ranger, had here found a home.7

About Ranney's western pieces, Tuckerman sensed an especially national flavor. "A more characteristic introduction to genre painting in America can hardly be imagined," the critic opined, concluding that Ranney had struck "a native and promising path."8

In his large and animated tableau, Hunting Wild Horses, Ranney presents a scene commonly played out on the western plains. Silhouetted against an expansive sky and very much in close-up view is the dramatic interplay of hunter and hunted. The sweeping, thundering dynamic of the...


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