Originally published in Points West in Fall 1997
By Sarah E. Boehme
Former Curator, Whitney Western Art Museum
William Tylee Ranney’s painting The Prairie Burial chronicles the tragic aspects of western migration. His representation of a grieving family standing before a small grave serves as a reminder of the many children who died due to illness and accidents during the period of western expansion.
Ranney’s nineteenth-century representation of life on the frontier has particular relevance in the twentieth century with the re-examination of the frontier myth and growing emphasis upon the roles of women and children in the West.
The Prairie Burial, 1848, oil on canvas, was donated to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West by Mrs. J. Maxwell Moran, the artist’s great-granddaughter. In discussing why she made this important gift to the Center, Mrs. Moran explained, “The Prairie Burial depicts the hardships that many families endured on their journey west. It belongs in the Buffalo Bill [Center of the West], especially the Whitney [Museum], with fine Americana where it can be appreciated by people searching for a better understanding of the early West.”
Ranney’s painted narrative portrays an episode often glossed over in the laudatory accounts of expansion. Recent scholarship has shown that women’s diaries and accounts of the western experience report different perspectives than men’s accounts. Women’s diaries of the westward trek include more reports on disease, accidents, and death than do the men’s records.
Reports from the frontier could have influenced William Tylee Ranney, who devoted many paintings to western subjects. Yet he made only one trip west of the Mississippi. Born in 1816 in Middletown, Connecticut, and reared primarily in North Carolina, Ranney answered a crusading call and traveled to Texas to enlist in the War of Independence against Mexico in 1836. After serving nine months and lingering in Texas for several more, Ranney returned to New York to begin his artistic career in earnest. He brought back souvenirs, sketches, and memories, as his wife later expressed, of “the wild enchanting prairies, the splendid horses, nature in all her splendor.”
Ranney set up a studio in Hoboken, New Jersey, filled with artifacts, such as guns, saddles, and riding gear. An art critic reported that a visitor would imagine he had entered a pioneer’s cabin, except for the sketches and studies which proclaimed the artist’s presence. His interests must have led him to read avidly about the West. Ranney might have been inspired by the book Ten Years in Oregon: Travels and Adventures of Doctor E. White and Lady West of the Rocky Mountains…, compiled by Miss A.J. Allen and published in 1848, the same year that The Prairie Burial was painted. Miss Allen recounts the story of an emigrating party in which a child became ill as they traveled through Missouri.
The sorrowing parents, Dr. White, and an attendant remained behind with the gravely ill child as the emigrant train traveled on. “The sweet little one, their only child, died, with no one but themselves to close its eyes, and compose its tender form for burial. The doctor and attendant made it a coffin of rough boards, and interred it near a beautiful tree, with a few shrubs and bushes to guard the lonely grave. After all was over, they begged to be left alone, and oh, the heart-breaking anguish of those parents over their lost darling!” wrote Miss Allen.
Ranney’s painting contains elements not accounted for in this particular text. For example, the parents in his painting have another child, who clings in sorrow to his mother’s skirt. Yet the sentiments expressed in the written account and the painting bear strong parallels. The reference to the beautiful tree may also relate to a feature of Ranney’s painting.
Viewers who saw the Center’s special exhibition American Frontier Life in 1987, may remember The Prairie Burial as appearing somewhat different, without the foliage in the upper right-hand portion of the painting. After the exhibition traveled to other museums, The Prairie Burial was sent for conservation treatment. Examination showed the tree leaves under layers of overpaint. According to the conservator’s analysis, the foliage was original to Ranney and the overpaint was not. Thus the decision was made to remove the layer of paint and reveal the leaves. The foliage provides a foil that frames the composition.
Hanging in the Whitney Western Art Museum, The Prairie Burial provides a counterpoint to Ranney’s masterpiece, Advice on the Prairie, 1853, oil on canvas, also a donation of Mrs. J. Maxwell Moran. Advice on the Prairie, even with its darkening sky, presents an optimistic view of western settlement. A family, traveling along the Oregon Trail, listens intently to the mountain man who spins stories of what they will encounter. In the center of the painting stands the mother, holding her rosy-checked baby who represents the promise of the future.
Painted five years after the burial painting and only four years before William Tylee Ranney’s own death, Advice on the Prairie signals the artist’s sustaining belief in the value of the western experience, even though he acknowledged the sorrowful aspects depicted in The Prairie Burial.
1. See, for example, Lillian Schlissel, Women’s Diaries of the Westward Journey, rev. ed. (New York: Schocken Books, 1992).
2. Miss A.J. Allen, comp. Ten Years to Oregon: Travels and Adventures of Doctor E. White and Lady West of the Rocky Mountains… (Mack, Andrus, & Co. Printers: 1848) 150.
3. Peter Hassrick et al., American Frontier Life: Early Western Painting and Prints (New York: Abbeville Press, 1987). See the essay “William Ranney” by Linda Ayres, 79 – 107.