On the Wing, c. 1850
Oil on canvas, 32
X 45" (81.28 X 114.30 cm.)
Museum purchase, 964-0-102

Well regarded in his lifetime as a genre painter, William T. Ranney was especially known for his sporting scenes. Such scenes attracted numerous mid-century artists and enjoyed a large audience. Ranney, along with Arthur E Tait, stood in the front rank of painters of sporting pictures. On the Wing was one of his most popular, evidenced by Ranney having created at least four versions of the image.1 Widely known through an engraving published by the American Art-Union in its Bulletin for October, 1850, On the Wing also appeared in the gift book Ornaments of Memory (1856 and 1857). Precisely where the Butler Institute painting fits into the chronology of the four versions (only one of which is dated) is not known, although, like the others, it was apparently executed around 1850. While all four painted versions offer nearly identical compositions, the Butler Institute's On the Wing sets the figures in a more dynamically rendered, wind-blown environment.
A writer of 1850 deemed the image "capital, in its style. Sportsman and dog are both in the best spirits, and are transferred to the canvas without losing anything of their keen relish of the sport." The appeal of Ranney's painting lies in its convincing portrayal of the alert, poised hunter and the tense, crouching boy and dog, all motionless, yet charged with potential energy. Dead game on the ground underscore the figures' vitality. Ranney plants the compactly rendered, centralized group in the midst of wind-blown marsh vegetation. More than the other versions, the Butler Institute's painting presents a dramatic contrast between the still, yet tense figures and the agitated reeds. Ranney accomplishes this by defining the marsh grass and reeds with much looser, broader, and quicker strokes than those he employed in the figures. The sense of dramatic intensity is further conveyed by the shared concentration of the man, boy, and dog. All eyes focus skyward, leading the viewer to search also for the rising ducks and to anticipate the explosive action to follow. Besides providing a pleasing visual narrative, On the Wing contributed to the era's nationalistic imagery with its striking portrayal of vigorous American outdoorsmen in the natural world, enjoying its bounty.
Throughout his career, Ranney rendered sporting scenes as well as genre and history paintings. He was also known as a painter of the American West, a part of the country he had come to know while serving in the Republic Army of Texas in 1836. As a mature artist, Ranney lived in New York and New Jersey and regularly exhibited with the American Art-Union and at the National Academy of Design. The respect with which his peers regarded him manifested itself in a special exhibition, to benefit his family, held at the National Academy of Design the year after he died. In response to this exhibition a contemporary declared: "A specimen of Ranney is indispensable wherever a collection of American art exists." On the Wing certainly warrants this claim.