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Mink Trapping in Northern New York

On view

Mink Trapping in Northern New York

Artist: Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (English, 1819-1905; active United States, after 1850)

Date: 1862
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions:
Framed: 25 x 34 3/4 x 2in. (63.5 x 88.3 x 5.1cm)
Image: 20 1/8 x 30 1/8in. (51.1 x 76.5cm)
Signed: Lower right: "A.F. Tait/NY1862" Verso: "Mink Trapping / Northern N.Y."
Credit Line: Museum Purchase
Object number: 67.92
Text Entries

This painting was first exhibited at the National Academy of Design in Manhattan in the spring of 1862, a time when the country’s mood was depressed by the bloodshed and destruction of the Civil War. Perhaps it was chosen for this honor in part because such an anecdotal scene of rural life suggested happier places and times, thus offering a welcome lift to the nation’s morale.

The English-born artist had spent much of the previous decade in the Adirondacks painting game birds and animals with increasing success.(1) Unfortunately the identity of the two woodsmen portrayed is not known, but Tait’s records noted that the canvas was “very carefully finished” and had been carried away from his studio that winter in a sleigh by his good patron, the restauranteur John C. Force, for the handsome sum of one hundred seventy-five dollars.

The painting soon came to the attention of the firm of Currier & Ives, which, in order to capitalize on the war-time market for colorful pictures, was already at work publishing a dozen large lithographs of Tait’s hunting and fishing scenes. Perhaps to avoid copyright problems, Tait painted the picture again, but with the figures reversed, to oblige the “printmakers to the American people.”

The traditional deadfall trap depicted in Mink Trapping in Northern New York was made from materials that were readily available to the Adirondack woodsman.(2) In his right hand he holds the dead mink just removed from the trap. The long log he holds in his left hand is held in place by vertical stakes to keep it directly over and parallel to a shorter log on the ground. In order to set the trap, the top pole is supported in the air by a delicate trigger mechanism made up of three notched twigs fitted together in the shape of the number 4 (these twigs appear on the ground in front of the trap). The little pen covered by leaves behind the logs forces the animal to approach the bait from one direction only. The mink must step between the upper and lower logs to reach the triggered bait, thus causing the heavy top pole to fall and crush its victim against the pole on the ground.

It is doubly fitting that this Adirondack painting now enjoys a permanent home in the nearby Mohawk Valley. For decades trappers used to bring their pelts to Utica and other communities along the river to sell to fur traders. They sometimes stayed in town just long enough to satisfy their thirst and buy supplies before heading back to the north woods.

Furthermore, not far to the west of Utica, the utopian Oneida Community perfected the mass machine production of the world-famous Newhouse steel trap.(3) Within a year after Tait’s painting was completed, a quarter of a million of these reliable and economical inventions were produced, suddenly making the rustic deadfall trap all but obsolete.(4) Tait thus documented for posterity this colorful aspect of our American past at a crucial moment.

 

Notes

1. For a full account of Tait‘s life and work. See Warder H. Cadbury, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, Artist in the Adirondacks (Newark: University of Dela“ are Press, 1986).

2. A useful reference is Arthur R. Harding. Dead-falls and Snares (Columbus, Ohio: A.R. Harding Publishing Co., 1907). William Sidney Mount painted two boys with a different sort of trap in 1844. See Christie’s New York auction catalog for December 9, 1983, lot no. 31, pp. 40-41.

3. The definitive account is in Richard Gerstell, The Steel Trap in North America (Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1985).

4. Winslow Homer’s Trapping in the Adirondacks, which shows a steel trap, appeared in Every Saturday (Dec. 24, 1870), p. 849.

 

Copyright
No known copyright restrictions.