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Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney

May 13 - August 14, 2006


(above: William Ranney (1813-1857), Advice on the Prairie, 1853, Oil on canvas, 38.75 x 55.25 inches. Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming. Gift of Mrs. J. Maxwell Moran. 10.91)


It may be entirely possible that folks in the West have never heard of William Ranney -- but that's about to change. On May 13, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center (BBHC) will open Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney, on view in the BBHC Special Exhibitions Gallery through August 14.


(above: William Ranney (1813-1857), The Lasso, 1846, Oil on canvas, 32 x 42.5 inches. Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming. Gift of Mrs. J. Maxwell Moran. 22.99)


"Contemplating some of Ranney's powerful works one might wonder why artist William Ranney is less well-known than some of his contemporaries or other western artists," remarked Dr. Sarah E. Boehme, the John S. Bugas Curator of the Whitney Gallery of Western Art at the BBHC. "One contributing factor is Ranney's short lifespan and, consequently, his resulting comparatively smaller oeuvre, or body of work."


(above: William Ranney (1813-1857), A Trapper Crossing the Mountains, 1853, Oil on canvas, 29 x 24 inches. Collection of The Speed Museum. Louisville, Kentucky. Museum Purchase. Mrs. Eliza J. Bohon Fund. 1949.29)


Painting in the mid 1800s, Ranney's subjects represent the diversity of early America -- from a revolutionary war hero to a family headed West toward a new life, and from the festivity of a Virginia wedding to the profound grief of burying one's child on the prairie. "Many of Ranney's western works focus on the unnamed figures of history, thus asserting the importance of the average person in developing the nation and its identity" Boehme explained. "Ranney's paintings convey important concepts about American character through his dramatic visualizations."


(above: William Ranney (1813-1857), Duck Shooters, 1849, Oil on canvas, 26 x 40.125 inches. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865. 48.470)


Some 60 works of art have been gathered from public and private collections across the U.S. for Forging an American Identity, the first comprehensive exhibition of Ranney's art in over 40 years. "This project includes paintings that rarely travel and some that are newly re-discovered," Boehme said. "We've learned so much more about William Ranney which makes this exhibition an unparalleled gathering of the artist's most significant paintings. Viewers will be treated to those new insights in a rare showing that, quite frankly, they might never otherwise see."


(above: William Ranney (1813-1857), Hunting Wild Horses, 1846, Oil on canvas, 36 x 54.25 inches. Museum of the American West Collection. Autry National Center.)


Even though the many scenes of daily life depicted are those of an era 150 years ago, Boehme is confident families will particularly enjoy this exhibition. "Parents and children can share their feelings were they confronted with the situation on canvas before them. Ranney's images are great conversation starters," she said.

Born in 1813 in Connecticut, Ranney began to develop his artistic interest by age 13. By 1832, he was studying painting and drawing in New York. He became a volunteer in the war for Texas independence in early 1836, providing the reference for his later western scenes. After the war, he embarked on his art career in earnest and submitted pieces to the National Academy of Design and the American Art-Union.


(above: William Ranney (1813-1857), Marion Crossing the Pedee, 1850, Oil on canvas, 50.125 x 74.375 inches. Amon Carter Museum. Fort Worth, Texas. 1983.126)


Ranney eventually settled in New Jersey with his wife, Margaret, and two sons. His proximity to New York City allowed him continued access to its exhibitions and art markets. The rural setting of his home provided land for his home and studio as well as access to outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing -- more content for his paintings. It was in this studio that Ranney created many of his most important works. He died in 1857 of tuberculosis.

According to Boehme, Ranney produced about 150 paintings in his brief lifetime. Scholars Linda Bantel and Peter Hassrick have catalogued and analyzed the paintings, providing the context for the interpretation in the exhibition. Their documentation of all the known works by Ranney will appear in the publication Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney: With a Catalogue of His Works. The book will also include essays by Boehme and by painting conservator Mark Bockrath. It will accompany the exhibition and will be available for sale in Museum Selections, the BBHC museum store.


(above: William Ranney (1813-1857), Veterans of 1776 Returning from the War,1848, Oil on canvas, 34.25 x 48.625 inches. Dallas Museum of Art. The Art Museum League Fund, Special Contributors and General Acquisitions Fund. 1981.40)


The exhibition's opening weekend gets underway at 9 a.m. Friday, May 12, with a symposium in the BBHC's Coe Auditorium. Four scholars will discuss the art of William Ranney as a "defining influence in visualizing our national identity." Topics will include the historical, cultural, and artistic context of Ranney's work. Boehme will serve as moderator, and panelists Hassrick and Bantel will be joined by Dr. John Mack Faragher, Director of the Howard Lamar School for the Study of Frontiers and Borders at Yale University, and James Hanson, Historian and Publication Editor of the Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly in Chadron, Nebraska.

Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney is supported in part by generous donations from the Henry Luce Foundation; 1957 Charity Foundation; Mrs. J. Maxwell (Betty) Moran; Mr. Ranney Moran; the National Endowment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation deserves great art; and the Wyoming Arts Council through funding from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wyoming State Legislature.


More about the Symposium

Art scholars and intrigued public alike are certain to be captivated by the Buffalo Bill Historical Center's (BBHC) summer exhibition, Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney. Those who want to learn even more about this unique nineteenth-century artist and the world he in which he lived, will have the opportunity at a symposium scheduled to launch the exhibition's public opening weekend. Scheduled for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, May 12, in the BBHC's Coe Auditorium, the symposium will offer a scholarly discussion of Ranney's work as it relates to the historical context of the early-to-mid-nineteenth century.

Symposium panelists will discuss Ranney's art as a defining influence in visualizing our national identity. Topics will include the historical, cultural, and artistic context of Ranney's work. Sarah E. Boehme, Ph.D., the John S. Bugas Curator of the BBHC's Whitney Gallery of Western Art, will moderate the symposium.

Keynote speaker John Mack Faragher, Ph.D., Director of the Howard Lamar School for the Study of Frontiers and Borders at Yale University, will address the concept of "forging an American identity" in order to describe the time in which Ranney lived, as well as the time about which he painted.

James Hanson, Ph.D., of Chadron, Nebraska, historian and publication editor of the Museum of the Fur Trade Quarterly, will also be on the symposium panel. Hanson will focus on the material culture represented in Ranney's work, especially as it relates to trappers and mountain men.

Peter Hassrick and Linda Bantel, co-authors of the catalogue written to accompany the exhibition, will join the panel to specifically discuss Ranney's life and works." Hassrick is the Director for the Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum, and Bantel is an independent art historian and former Museum Director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

"This is a very unique exhibition-the first one to exhibit William Ranney's work in over 40 years," said Shelley Leslie of the BBHC education department. "The symposium will be equally unique as these knowledgeable, dynamic speakers discuss his work."  


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