William Tylee Ranney, painter, the son of William and Clarissa (Gaylord) Ranney, was born on May 9, 1813, in Middletown, Connecticut. By 1826 he was living with an uncle, William Nott, in Fayetteville, North Carolina, where he was apprenticed to a tinsmith. There he probably made his first sketches. Ranney moved to Brooklyn by 1833 or 1834, began to study painting and drawing, and possibly worked in an architect's office. Shortly after the battle of the Alamo in March 1836, Ranney enlisted with Capt. Henry A. Hubbel in New Orleans and went to Texas to participate in the Texas Revolution. He acted as regimental paymaster in Capt. C. A. W. Fowler's First Regiment of Volunteers from May 18 until November 18, 1836. Ranney served nearly nine months in all, mostly near the town of Columbia (now West Columbia), and received bounty grants in addition to his army salary. After he left the army he remained in Texas and made sketches that provided the basis for some of his later paintings.
Ranney returned north in the spring of 1837 and apparently continued his artistic training there. He lived in Brooklyn and publicly exhibited his work for the first time in 1838 at the National Academy of Design in New York City. Later that year he was awarded a diploma for his first genre painting, A Courting Scene, which was exhibited at the New York Mechanics' Institute Fair. Between 1839 and 1842 he may have returned to North Carolina or possibly to Texas to deal with land claims, but by 1843 he was back in New York, where he was listed in the city directories as a portrait painter. In 1847 he moved to Weehawken, New Jersey, where he remained several years. He married Margaret Agnes O'Sullivan in New York in 1848; they had two sons. It is likely that Ranney lived in New York City briefly in 1850; by 1853 he and his family had settled in West Hoboken, New Jersey, where a number of other artists lived. There he built a large studio to accommodate the many artifacts-buckskin costumes, guns, riding gear-that he had brought back from the West. He also kept a stable that enabled him to observe horses, a prominent feature in his genre scenes. Ranney was a regular contributor to the exhibitions at the National Academy of Design, which elected him an associate member in 1850, and the American Art Union, both in New York. He exhibited portraits, sporting and genre scenes, and historical episodes from the American Revolution.
By 1846 Ranney's paintings began to show the influence of his experiences in Texas and depicted popular western subjects such as the trapper and pioneer. Works such as Hunting Wild Horses (1846), Prairie Burial (1848), Prairie Fire (1848), The Retreat (1850), Scouting Party (1851), The Trapper's Last Shot (1850), Advice on the Prairie (1853), and The Trappers (1851) dramatized the courage and vigor of frontier subjects in a linear, realistic style enlivened by the artist's use of clear color and attention to detail. His membership in the American Art Union ensured that many engravings were made after his work and distributed to Art Union members throughout the country. His idealized images of the West were further disseminated by Currier and Ives lithographs after On the Wing (1850) and other popular subjects.
Ranney was born into a Protestant family but was converted to Catholicism during the last days of his life. He developed consumption around 1855 and died at his home in West Hoboken on November 18, 1857. The next year an exhibition and sale of his work was held at the National Academy of Design to provide much-needed financial support for his family. The sale also provided an early catalogue of his work. Examples of his work are included in the Corcoran Art Gallery in Washington, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in Tulsa, and the Archer M. Huntington Art Gallery in Austin.