When Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait and his wife, Marian, moved to New York from England, in 1850, wilderness sports were becoming a common pursuit for American outdoorsmen. The popularization of hunting and fishing was advanced through publications and the extension of railroad lines, which greatly reduced the distance and difficulty of reaching wilderness areas. An avid sportsman and accomplished artist, Tait immediately capitalized on this growing cultural phenomenon and, with works such as In the Woods: Taking It Easy, helped to ensure that the representation of these leisure activities became an important part of the lexicon of American art.
Born in Liverpool, England in 1819, Tait spent some of his early youth on a family farm where he acquired a life-long love for field sports and wildlife. In his early teens he moved to Manchester and began working for Thomas Agnew, selling a variety of fine and decorative arts. It was during this period that he took up drawing and lithography, the vestiges of which are evident in the superb detail and draftsmanship of In the Woods: Taking It Easy. Though he would not begin working with oil paint until the 1840s, Tait was a natural talent, quickly mastering the medium. His skill and choice of subject matter, sporting and wildlife themes, engaged the public's growing enthusiasm for recreation and allowed him "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)
By the time he painted In the Woods: Taking It Easy in 1862, Tait had firmly established himself as a popular artist. According to art historian Warder H. Cadbury, "As the decade of the sixties began Tait had become so well established professionally and financially that he was free to move out of New York to the nearby rural suburb of Morrisania. He no longer had to work at selling his pictures, for a new class of middlemen in the American art world had emerged in the city as commercial dealer and gallery owners. Michael Knoedler and Samuel P. Avery, among others, were happy to handle on a commission basis that half of Tait's canvases that were not already on special order for patrons who had sought him out." (A.F. Tait: Artist in the Adirondacks, exhibition catalogue, Blue Mountain Lake, New York, 1974, pp. 10-11)
In the Woods: Taking It Easy demonstrates Tait's consummate skill as both a painter and a narrator of the American sporting life. The work depicts four men relaxing in a makeshift camp and recounting the day's adventures. Their hunting spaniel, exhausted from a long day, is lulling to sleep against one of the men's knees, while the bounty of fish and fowl are on display. The atmosphere is relaxed and jocular as two of the men lounge smoking pipes as they all appear to be discussing the size of the trout that a third is holding. Most likely set on the shore of a peaceful lake in the Adirondacks, this genre scene celebrates the camaraderie and pleasure inherent to the sporting life.
Tait's skill as a painter is evident in the refined detail of the painting. He adeptly captures every facet of the scene from the glint of the men's shirt buttons to the texture of the leopard pelt blanket on which one of the men lounges. Likewise, the men's personality and relaxed candor is evident in their carefully rendered facial expressions.
Reproduced as a hand colored lithograph published by Currier & Ives in 1863 with the title Camping In the Woods, 'Laying Off,' the present work and others depicting similar subjects, such as A Good Time Coming (1862, Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, New York), made the sporting life increasingly appealing to the public. The unfortunate result of the resounding popularity of Tait's sporting images was that they, "began to attract so many visitors to the wilderness that game as well as the solitude and quiet that Tait preferred were increasingly difficult to find." (A.F. Tait: Artist in the Adirondacks, p. 11) As the era of vanishing wilderness continues, works such as In the Woods: Taking It Easy serve as important visual documentaries of America's past.