Upon his 1850 arrival in America, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait was greeted by a culture riveted with tales of the trials and tribulations of the Western movement. Tait's personal passion for sporting and wildlife was well aligned to the public's interest and allowed him to imbue masterworks such as The Check--Keep Your Distance with a sense of authenticity that appealed to the populace's demand for adventure. One of only twenty-two Western canvases the artist painted, The Check--Keep Your Distance is exemplary of this small, yet important, body of the artist's work and accounts for the artist's ability "to secure with remarkable speed his reputation as a professional painter." (The Adirondack Museum, A.F. Tait: Artist in the Adirondacks, exhibition catalogue, Blue Mountain Lake, New York, 1974, p. 9)
Painted just two years after his arrival in America, and following directly on the success of another Western themed work by the artist, One Rubbed Out (1852, Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska), The Check--Keep Your Distance depicts the riveting drama of a battle between pioneers and Native Americans. Both of these popular images are set within a sweeping prairie of tall grass, the expanse of which Tait has adeptly captured through his use of a low horizon line. These paintings convey the popular image of the danger and adventure associated with the West. It was due to their wide ranging public appeal that both were subsequently published as prints by Nathaniel Currier.
In the dramatic The Check--Keep Your Distance, Tait's superior, largely self-taught draftsmanship allows him to render the details of the scene, while his fluid brushwork provides the composition with movement and tension. A sole, buckskin clad trapper astride his supply laden steed occupies the foreground and is spectacularly outlined against the pale gray clouds. From the arrow in the trapper's blanket and the haste of his cohort who is attempting to flee with two of their supply horses at the left of the composition, the artist has clearly indicated that the men are under attack. Danger is in the air as the central figure takes aim at four Native Americans on horseback in the distant right of the composition. Characteristic of Tait's best works, the narrative is filled with suspended tension as the trapper prepares to take his shot.
The realism of The Check--Keep Your Distance belies the fact that Tait never traveled to the American West. Instead, he most likely relied on contemporary literary references and the first hand knowledge of his friend and fellow artist, William Ranney, who experienced the Wild West during his stint in the Texan army in the 1830s. According to art historian Warder H. Cadbury, "Evidence suggests that Ranney generously let Tait study and use artifacts in his studio, as well as his sketches and paintings of the prairie." (Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait: Artist in the Adirondacks, Newark, Delaware, 1986, p. 29) Ranney was an influential mentor for Tait during the 1850s, often inviting him to his Hoboken, New Jersey studio, which was filled with a remarkable variety of eclectic objects. Indeed, the quality of detail in The Check--Keep Your Distance and other masterworks is due as much to Tait's consummate skill and personal sporting experience as to his careful study of these props. Nineteenth century historian and critic Henry Tuckerman wrote of the atelier that it, "was so constructed as to receive animals; guns, pistols and cutlasses hung on the walls; and these, with curious saddles and primitive riding gear, might lead a visitor to imagine he had entered a pioneer's cabin or border chieftan's hut: such an idea would, however, have been at once dispelled by a glance at many sketches and studies which proclaimed that an artist, and not a bushranger, had here found a home." (as quoted in Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait: Artist in the Adirondacks, p. 29)
The Check--Keep Your Distance also manifests Tait's life-long study of and love for animals. The artist takes as much care in his assiduous representation of the horses as he does in that of the trappers and Native Americans. The central figure's mount is tense, ears perked up, eyes alert and every muscle taut. He is sitting back on his haunches prepared to gallop away at any moment. The incredible detail and accuracy in the horse's musculature and overall depiction is characteristic of Tait's works. In all of his sporting paintings, he pays equal attention to the depiction of man and creature, and indeed, in his later career he painted animals almost exclusively.
Tait's skill as an artist and enthusiasm for his subject accounts for his continuing popularity making works such as The Check--Keep Your Distance continuously engaging portals to the past. Craig Gilborn, former director of the Adirondack Museum, observed, "A.F. Tait kept his individuality while visually expressing ideas and situations that were very much in harmony with the spirit of his times. That he elicits the same delight today as he did years ago is testimony that his work strikes some sort of sympathetic chord." (A.F. Tait: Artist in the Adirondacks, p. 8) It is the sense of realistic narrative in works such as The Check--Keep Your Distance that both appealed to his contemporaries and accounts for his enduring popularity.