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Recruiting for the Continental Army

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Recruiting for the Continental Army

Artist: William T. Ranney (American, 1813 - 1857)

Date: 1857-1859
Medium: Oil on canvas
Overall: 53 3/4 x 82 1/4in. (136.5 x 208.9cm)
Signed: Lower left: 'Painted by W. RANNEY. / Finished by / BLAUVLET / (1859)'
Credit Line: Gift of T. Proctor Eldred
Object number: 58.284
Text Entries

William T. Ranney is known for three types of genre paintings: frontier life, duck-hunting along the eastern seaboard, and the Revolutionary War. This last category, perhaps the least known aspect of Ranney’s work, includes at least nine paintings created over a period of twelve years, beginning in 1845.(1) Several factors influenced Ranney’s choice of subject matter at this time. The American Art Union, then in its heyday, provided exhibition space for genre and historical paintings and encouraged artists to depict native subjects. The mid-nineteenth century, especially the late 1840s, saw a renewed interest in historical events, specifically those of the Revolutionary War.(2) This patriotism was brought about in part by the Mexican War, a conflict precipitated by the granting of statehood to Texas, in whose war for independence Ranney had fought in the previous decade.

Just as the U.S. Army relied on short-term volunteer enlistments during the 1846-48 crisis,(3) so did the Continental Army during the Revolution. The plea for volunteers is the subject of Ranney’s Recruiting for the Continental Army, which, like the majority of his Revolutionary War pictures, focuses on non-heroic incidents rather than battle scenes.

In its coloration and crowded composition, Ranney’s painting recalls George Caleb Bingham’s election series created in the 1850s. Bingham’s village scenes, peopled with American “types” and depicting vignettes of daily life, were exhibited in the East and drew widespread attention. The Utica picture seems especially indebted to Bingham’s County Election of 1851—52 (St. Louis Art Museum) and the print after it by John Sartain (1854.). In both Bingham’s and Ranney’s paintings the main action occurs to the composition’s right, near major architectural elements, which include an inn with a sign out front. In Ranney’s painting, the sign depicts a crowned head symbolizing royalty and it is being pulled down by a group of Patriots.

The crowd is arranged in a semicircular composition, with the central position occupied by the man joining the army. The pool of light falling on the middle group draws our eyes to this important part of the narrative. However, other dramatic moments are being enacted in each section of the painting. A white-haired patriot, standing on a farm wagon with a soldier, exhorts others to join. As men too old to fight remain seated, a group of young men carrying rifles forms a line to enlist, while their wives weep and bid them farewell.(4) Even a small child comes forward with his small rifle. Two men to the left—perhaps Loyalists—drink from their tankards, apparently unpersuaded by the oratory.

Begun late in his career when the artist was ill with consumption, the painting remained unfinished at his death and was one of the works auctioned in December 1858 for the benefit of Ranney’s family.(5) An inscription on the barrel at lower left indicates that the work was completed in 1859 by Charles F. Blauvelt, a New York portraitist and genre painter who, like Ranney, had exhibited frequently at the National Academy of Design and the American Art-Union.(6)



1. For biographical information on Ranney, see Francis Grubar, William Ranney: Painter of the Early West (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1962), and Linda Ayres, “William Ranney,” in American Frontier Life: Early Western Painting and Prints (New York: Abbeville Press, 1987), pp. 78-107. The Revolutionary War paintings, in addition to the Utica picture, are: Battle of Cowpens of 1845 (private collection); First News of the Battle of Lexington of 1847 (North Carolina Museum of Art); Washington Rallying the Americans at the Battle of Princeton of 1848 (The Art Museum, Princeton University); Marion Crossing the Pedee of 1850 (Amon Carter Museum); Revolutionary Soldier, not dated and location unknown; Washington at the Battle of Princeton, not dated (Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art); and The Tory Escort of 1857 (location unknown).

2. Interest in the Revolution was evident not only in the paintings of the late 1840s, but also in the range of newly published biographies and popular tales relating to the war. See Michael Kammen, A Season of Youth: The American Revolution and the Historical Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978). Emanuel Leutze painted about eleven Revolutionary War scenes. Peter F. Rothermel, Junius B. Stearns, and Dennis Malone Carter, to name but a few, also painted this subject in the late 1840s and 1850s.

3. Encyclopedia of American History, ed. by Richard Morris, 3rd rev. ed., s.v. “The War with Mexico, 1846-48.”

4. Michael Quick has pointed out that paintings of the Dusseldorf School, much in vogue in America in the late 18405 and early 1850s, frequently included women in passive roles, often relatives of historical figures, “reacting to the central action with visible emotion," and that Emanuel Leutze depicted “Wives and daughters dramatizing the human interest of historical events.” Ranney employs women for such roles in the Utica painting. See Michael Quick, “A Bicentennial Gift: Mrs. Schuyler Burning Her Wheat Fields on the Approach of the British by Emanuel Leutze,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 23 (1977), p. 31.

5. The Ranney Fund Sale, held at the National Academy of Design, raised some seven thousand dollars, which was invested for the artist’s children. Of the 2 12 works sold, 108 were by Ranney. Ninety-five artists, including Asher Durand, Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, John F. Kensett, and George Inness, donated their works for sale. This highly successful event led to the formation of the Artist‘s Fund Society. The Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute painting was most likely no. 75, “Enlisting during the Revolutionary War,” which sold to “Brady” for one hundred dollars. This was probably the Honorable James T. Brady, who gave a public lecture on American art prior to the Fund Sale, the proceeds from which defrayed exhibition expenses at the Academy. For information on the Ranney Fund Sale, see Grubar, William Ranney, pp. 11-12 and 57-59; and The Crayon, vol. 6 (February 1859), part 2, p. 58.

6. On Blauvelt, see Richard J. Koke et al., American Landscape and Genre Paintings in the New-York Historical Society (New York: The New-York His- torical Society, 1982), vol. 1, pp. 61-64., nos. 167-68. Blauvelt donated a painting entitled The Lesson to the Ranney Fund Sale. At least three other Ranney paintings were completed after his death by other artists: Rail Shooting (Terra Museum of American Art) and The Pipe of Friendship (Newark Museum) both by Vllilliam S. Mount, and The Freshet (location unknown) possibly by Otto Sommer.


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