Suspense-filled depictions of close calls, tight spots, and struggles to the death enjoyed great popularity in American art during the second half of the nineteenth century. As the country moved full steam ahead toward modernity, many Americans romanticized a past that held preindustrial activities in high esteem, including rugged and risky excursions in the wild. The visual culture that emerged around hunting reflected the social and economic anxieties and successes of rapidly changing times by illustrating the harsh environments and dramatic confrontations endured in pursuit of quarry, whether for commerce, diversion, or sustenance.

The English-born artist Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819–1905) found inspiration in the hard-scrabble life and craggy terrain of New York’s Adirondack Mountains. His paintings perpetuated the archetype of the brave hunter who, through courageous acts, conquered and tamed America’s wilderness. The symbolic implications of such works reflected social anxieties of the time while reinforcing the power of individuals and, in turn, the nation. His painting The Hunter’s Dilemma (Fig. 1), reflects a common storyline in American paintings of the second half of the nineteenth century—the mortal predicament. This theme reflected cultural stresses caused by rapid industrialization—as well as the promises and perils of westward expansion—where the potential rewards were worth the risk of hardship, harm, and possible failure. Potentially sacrificing life and limb to retrieve his kill, the hunter in Tait’s painting has climbed down onto a ledge set halfway up the face of a sheer cliff. Dressed in buckskin, a traditional garb that appears throughout popular culture as the costume associated with such heroic figures as Daniel Boone, the young man confronts—and pursues the challenge of—the seemingly insurmountable obstacle of hoisting his dead quarry to higher ground.
Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819–1905), The Hunter’s Dilemma, 1851. Oil on canvas, 33¾ x 44¼ inches. Collection of Shelburne Museum; Gift of William H. Scoble (1961-2). Photography by Andy Duback.
Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819–1905), A Tight Fix–Bear Hunting, Earl Winter (The Life of a Hunter: A Tight Fix), 1856. Oil on canvas, 40 x 60 inches. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Ark. Photography by Amon Carter Museum of American Art.
Winslow Homer (1836–1910), A Huntsman and Dogs, 1891. Oil on canvas, 28⅛ x 48 inches. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pa. The William L. Elkins Collection (1924, E1924-3-8).
  N. C. Wyeth (1882–1945), Deep Cove Lobster Man, ca. 1938. Oil on gessoed board (Renaissance Panel), 16¼ x 22¾ inches. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pa. Joseph E. Temple Fund (1939.16).