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William Jacob Hays, Sr.
(American, 1830–1875)
Prairie Dog Village
1867
oil on canvas, 36" x 72"
Gift of Mrs. E. L. Tuohy

A student of natural history and a largely self-taught painter, William Jacob Hays earned his reputation by depicting animals, plants and their habitats with painstakingly accurate detail. It was this scientific and non-allegorical treatment of his subjects that set Hays apart from his contemporaries and peers, among whom were Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church. Like Hays, these artists were also avid collectors of natural history objects. Their paintings usually featured more panoramic and distant views, imbued with a dramatic romanticism, while Hays delighted in faithfully depicting the environment from both near and far, without much invention. Prairie Dog Village was painted from sketches and studies the artist made following his only trip west, when he traveled to the upper Missouri River, Nebraska territory, in 1860. It has been noted that Hays was one of the first accomplished painters to visit the Missouri region, and his production following the trip more than likely influenced other painters to travel west in the 1860s. Because of the disease that claimed his life at the relatively young age of forty-five, this was to be Hays’ only first-hand encounter with his western subjects, although he produced many animal cum habitat paintings based on shorter trips to Nova Scotia and the nearby Adirondack mountains. He was also recognized as a masterful painter of floral still life, as evidenced by his treatment of prairie flora in this work.

When Hays witnessed this scene first-hand in 1860, railroads were just beginning to make their way across the sparsely populated American prairie and westward. Undisturbed, villages or “towns” of prairie dogs often covered many square miles of land, and they shared this habitat with natural enemies like the rattlesnakes and owls depicted here. Hays pictures a dramatic moment where the prairie dogs are startled by either the approach of a human invader (the artist himself?) or a herd of buffalo. This painting provides a unique visual record of the ecosystem of the American prairie prior to mass westward expansion. By the 1880’s ranchers had all but exterminated prairie dogs, realizing the threat of broken legs their holes posed to horses and cattle.

 
 
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