In the early 1850s, wilderness sports were becoming a common pursuit for American outdoorsmen as the popularization of hunting and fishing was advanced through publications and the extension of railroad lines. An accomplished artist by the time he moved to New York from England, in early September 1850, Tait immediately capitalized on this growing cultural phenomenon in works such as The Hunter's Dilemma: I. One of the first large scale pictures that he painted in America, the present work is of the caliber that accounts for his rapid rise in America's art world and public esteem.
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 The Hunters Dilemma: I. 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." (W.H. Cadbury in The Adirondack Museum, A.F. Tait: Artist in the Adirondacks, exhibition catalogue, Blue Mountain Lake, New York, 1974, p. 9) The popularity of works such as The Hunter's Dilemma: I helped to insure that the representation of these leisure activities became an important part of the lexicon of American art.
The Hunter's Dilemma: I demonstrates Tait's consummate skill as both a painter and a narrator of the American sporting life. Rich in painterly detail, the work captures a tense psychological moment as the hunter debates whether to leave his prized game. Tait presents the scene with authentic accuracy, precisely capturing every aspect of the hunter's buckskin jacket, hat and hunting equipment. The quality of detail in The Hunter's Dilemma: I and other works was due to Tait's personal sporting experience augmented by the careful study of props in his friend and fellow artist William Ranney's Hoboken studio. Ranney was an influential mentor for the Tait during the 1850s, "Tait never saw the American West that he painted with such seeming authority. But in Ranney's studio he could find all the props he needed to give his paintings authenticity Evidence suggests that Ranney generously let Tait study and use artifacts in his studio, as well as his sketches and paintings of the prairie." (W.H. Cadbury and H.F. Marsh, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait: Artist in the Adirondacks, Newark, Delaware, 1986, p. 29) Indeed there is a photograph that shows Tait in Ranney's studio wearing the wampum pouch that appears in The Hunter's Dilemma: II, a strongly related work that is currently in the Collection of the Shelburne Museum, Shelburne, Vermont. Also, Tait's love of animals is apparent in the assiduous representation of the deer. 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 passion for sporting and wildlife allowed him to imbue his works with a sense of authentic experience that appealed to the American public. His skill as an artist and enthusiasm for his subject accounts for his continuing popularity and makes works such as The Hunter's Dilemma: I continuously engaging portals to the past. Craig Gilborn, past 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 Hunter's Dilemma: I that both appealed to Tait's contemporaries and accounts for his enduring popularity.