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Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney
June 26, 2007 - August 19, 2007
Advice on the Prairie
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, 2007 - 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.

First Fish of the Season
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.


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


Dorrance Special Exhibition Galleries, first floor


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.