In 1855, William Tylee Ranney engraved this landmark image, beautifully capturing the excitement and spirit of the American frontier. “The Trapper’s Last Shot” shows a rugged frontiersman on horseback, holding his rifle as he twists to look behind him. The expression on his bearded face is alert and wary, his eyes wide, focused on an unseen point off to the left. He grips a rifle with both hands, suggesting that he has spotted an ominous sight, and the darkness of the clouds framing him add to the sense of impending danger.
Ranney’s decision to place the focus of the trapper’s intense gaze outside of the picture was highly strategic and an effective compositional device. It is left to the viewer’s imagination to envision what has captured his attention, rendering the scene all the more exciting and tense. In stark contrast to the setting, the trapper’s horse stands motionless, knee-deep in a pond, its muscles tensed as though it is ready to take flight. The trapper, too, appears perfectly still, yet he is poised and ready for whatever is to come. It is a moment of silent tension. All elements of the composition work together in perfect harmony to convey the drama, the savage beauty, and the dangerous thrill represented by the West.
Ranney was arguably one of the earliest and most successful artists to focus on the West, and “The Trapper’s Last Shot” represents his most celebrated image. To Ranney, trappers symbolized the spirit of American independence and ingenuity, and also the western wilderness, which was quickly disappearing in the face of encroaching civilization. Almost paradoxically, the trapper represents American expansion and fulfillment of the country’s Manifest Destiny.
William Ranney was born in the Northeast, but was inspired by a voyage to the Texas frontier that he made in 1836. That journey was in response to an eloquent plea by Texas governor Henry Smith, requesting aid in the struggle against the Mexican army. Like so many other East Coasters, Ranney was enthralled by the west, and did not hesitate to join the romantic, thrilling fight for Texan independence. Although he remained there less than a year his experiences provided the inspiration for some of the most compelling images of the American West ever produced.
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