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About William Ranney

Self-Portrait, c. 1855
William Ranney, American
Oil on academy board
8½ x 7¼ inches
Private Collection
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.

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