The Retrieve, the third of at least eight highly popular paintings of duck hunting William Tylee Ranney completed in as many years, betrays the artist's avid pursuit of the sport in the salt marshes near his home in West Hoboken, New Jersey. This particular work was even more personal: the artist’s grandson identified its setting as Hackensack Meadows, which Ranney could see from his studio, and the models were that artist’s brother (kneeling) and probably a neighbor’s groomsman, a frequent model. The Springer spaniel, proudly presenting a canvasback duck to his master, completes the trio.
The painting's title, chosen by Ranney in 1851 when he first exhibited the work, records a very specific activity by a well-trained hunting dog. As such, it confirms the artist’s interest in proper hunting practices, which was noticed by his critics. One writer praised his careful portrayal of fall, the correct hunting season, noting the sky's "autumnal dark, [with] gray and purple shades." Ranney’s attention to the dusky fall brown, green, and gold hues of the marsh grasses and cattails, as well as the hunters' heavy coats, further reinforces his sharp attention to his subject.
Ranney, who was almost entirely self-taught, painted a wide variety of subjects before his tragic death from tuberculosis at age 44. Best known for his western-themed paintings, he also undertook genre, religious, and history scenes as well as portraiture. He achieved considerable success, selling paintings to many collectors; William Wilson Corcoran, a wealthy Washington, DC, banker, purchased The Retrieve within a year of its completion.
lower center: W Ranney / 1850
Purchased from the artist by 1851 by William Wilson Corcoran [1798-1888], Washington; gift 1869 to the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- Twenty-sixth Annual Exhibition of the National Academy of Design, New York, 1851, no. 365.
- Sport in American Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1933, no. 82, as Duck Shooting.
- Man at Work, Denver Art Museum, 1952, unnumbered catalogue, as Duck Shooting.
- Shooting and Fishing in Art, Baltimore Museum of Art, 1958, no. 22, as Duck Shooting.
- William Ranney, Painter of the Early West, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Detroit Institute of Arts; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1962-1963, no. 48, as Duck Shooting.
- Corcoran [The American Genius]. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1976, unnumbered catalogue.
- Life in 19th Century America: An Exhibition of American Genre Painting, Terra Museum of American Art, Evanston, 1981, no. 20, as Duck Shooting.
- The American Animal: From the 1730's through the 1930's, Mansfield Art Center, Ohio, 1986, no. 15, as Duck Shooting.
- Sport in art from American Museums, National Art Museum of Sport, Indianapolis; Phoenix Art Museum; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; IBM Gallery of Science and Art, New York, 1991-1992, no. 17, as Duck Shooting.
- Figuratively Speaking: The Human Form in American Art, 1770-1950, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, unpublished checklist.
- Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 21 (shown in Washington only).
- Forging an American Identity: The Art of William Ranney, Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming; Speed Art Museum, Louisville; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2006-2007, no. 59.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013-28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- Wild Spaces, Open Seasons: Hunting and Fishing in American Art, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis; Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; Shelburne Museum, Vermont; Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, 2016-2018, no. 55, repro.
- Strong, Lisa. "William Tylee Ranney, The Retrieve." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Washington, 2011: 20, 100-101, 261, repro.