Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819–1905)
Duck Shooting over Decoys, 1854
Oil on canvas, 30 x 43 in.
Framed dimensions: 41 1/2 x 55 1/2 in.
Signed and dated lower right: A. F. Tait 1854
Provenance: private collection, until 2006
Exhibited: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 1856, no. 4.
Literature: Warder H. Cadbury and Henry F. Marsh, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait: Artist in the Adirondacks (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1986), 128, no. 54.22
Upon his arrival in the United States, Tait found that William Ranney had created a market for the animal and sporting subject matter that Tait loved to paint. In Ranney Tait also found a willing mentor, who likely allowed Tait access to his paintings and collection of frontier props. One Ranney painting, On the Wing, 1850 (private collection), served as the inspiration for a series of important early Tait paintings: Duck Shooting, 1851 (Cadbury and Marsh, no. 51.11; Christie’s, January 27, 1995, lot 839), which was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1852, Duck Shooting, Some of the Right Sort, 1851 (Cadbury and Marsh, no. 51.12), which was exhibited at the National Academy in 1854, and our painting, Duck Shooting over Decoys, which was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1856.
In our painting, Tait adopted Ranney’s low-angle perspective, which gives the viewer a sense of participating in the action, and he also used a flaw of light to spotlight the hunters amidst the dark marsh grass. The compositions and narrative aims of the paintings, however, differ significantly. Discarding Ranney’s triangular composition, in which the narrative can be understood at a single glance, Tait directed the viewer’s gaze from the central figure to his companion on the left, and then, following the hunters’ gaze, back toward the distant flying ducks. In this way, he generated the feeling of tense anticipation appropriate to this crucial moment before the hunter fires. Details such as the dead ducks lying at the hunter’s feet, the decoys floating on the water, and the provisions in the boat add further narrative depth.