Trappers Following a Trail: At Fault is among the earliest in the series of western subjects that Tait created in the 1850s. These images were immensely popular with the public, whose interest was piqued by the numerous narratives of western exploration that had been published by mid-century, and by the Gold Rush of '49. Despite their importance, "Tait's prairie scenes," notes one art-historian, "were few in number, and they all date from the earliest chapter of a long career in this country. Indeed, out of a lifetime total of more than seventeen hundred paintings, large and small, only twenty two have a western motif, depicting the trapper's life, and these were done between 1851 and 1862. Some of these paintings were studies or copies of others, leaving a mere thirteen different compositions, of which two are still unlocated. Eight of these eleven known pictures were published by Nathaniel Currier, and, later, Currier & Ives, as large folio prints." (W. H. Cadbury, "Arthur F. Tait," American Frontier Life, Early Western Painting and Prints, Fort Worth, Texas, 1987, p. 109). Nearly all of Tait's western-themed paintings have long since entered public collections.
While popular, Tait's western images were not universally well received by the critics, one of whom described a related work as an example of "a style of painting that is becoming painfully conspicuous in our exhibitions of glaring red shirts, buckskin breeches, and a very coarse prairie grass are the essential ingredients." Nonetheless, they captured the drama of the wilderness, and spoke to Tait's American audience with an authenticity that brought him wide acclaim. As noted by W. H. Cadbury, remarking on the artist's fluid dynamism and sure handling of line, Tait's popularity arose chiefly from his choice of subject:
"The theme of nearly all of Tait's prairie compositions is the armed conflict of the white man against the Indian, a motif that appealed to many mid-century Americans, caught up in the spirit of expansion, as the expression of the nation's identity and destiny. Eastern newspapers were full of accounts of the wars in Texas, the wagon trains on the Oregon Trail, and gold seekers en route to California. A few book length accounts of the adventure filled lives of the trappers and scouts, overland expeditions, and military explorations caught the public's fancy, and nearly every narrative had its own dramatic tales of Indian skirmishes."
Remarking on the artist's preference of implying the presence of an unseen Indian enemy, without actually depicting them in compositions such as Trappers Following a Trail, At Fault, Cadbury adds that "Tait relied on the viewer to use his own imagination to visualize the dangerous enemy and to speculate on the denouement of each drama. With the help of often splendid draftsmanship, Tait's pictures sometimes evoke an anxious tension and palpable vitality that distinguish them from ordinary documentary, history, or narrative paintings." (as quoted in "Arthur F. Tait," American Frontier Life, Early Western Paintings and Prints, p.110)
Tait's fascination with western life began as early as 1840-42, when, as a youth in Manchester, England, he is said by family tradition to have worked for George Catlin's Indian Gallery as part of his Tableaux Vivants. As part of his presentation, Catlin enlisted Englishmen, including Tait, who was painted and costumed as an Indian to sing, dance, and 'war-whoop' for visitors. Tait emigrated to the United States in 1850, and he almost immediately took up a friendship with the celebrated western painter, William Ranney. Given his fascination with the West, Tait was fortunate to have a friend in Ranney, who had traveled the plains and visited Texas in the 1830s. Ranney's studio was filled with animals, guns, pistols, curious saddles and primitive riding gear and all the other props that were necessary to create the romantic verisimilitude that Tait would strive to achieve in his western paintings. It is thought that Tait borrowed Ranney's western kit to produce a photograph (Adirondack Museum, Blue Mountain Lake, New York), depicting the artist aiming a Kentucky flint-lock, and wearing fringed buckskin clothes and Indian moccasins. The photograph became the basis of a painted self-portrait of Tait as a frontiersman in another of his works of the 1850s entitled On the Warpath, likewise painted in 1851.
The present painting, Trappers Following the Trail: At Fault, is one of two versions of the subject. The second, dated 1852, is similarly titled Trappers at Fault, Looking for the Trail (Anschutz Collection, Denver, Colorado). The present, earlier version is believed to be Tait's entry to the 1851 annual exhibition at the Boston Atheneum, under the title Prairie Scene (Discovering an Indian Trail). His second version, to which he added an additional figure, is assumed to be the painting he showed the following year at the National Academy of Design in New York. These and other successes earned him election to the Academy as an associate member in the spring of 1854, and as a full academician in 1858. (J. Troccoli, Painters and the American West, The Anschutz Collection, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, p. 95).
Discussing the second work, Cadbury observes that "as with On the Warpath, many of the details of Trappers at Fault confirm Tait's use of borrowed props from Ranney's studio. [The observation is equally true for the first version]. The trapper on the left, for example, is wearing the beaded puckertoe moccasins so characteristic of the time and place. The artist Alfred Jacob Miller noted in 1837 that the Indian women made such articles with 'the utmost neatness, taste and dexterity. Everybody here wears them in preference to either boot or shoe-they are verily the most comfortable covering for the feet that can be fashioned.' The stirrup of the horse of the kneeling trapper is a variant of what was sometimes called a Mexican or block stirrup, made from a flat block of wood three or four inches thick with a slot cut through for the foot. The skin or blanket laid on the seat of the saddle to soften the ride was called an epishemore. The tin canteen hanging from the saddle's pommel may have been military issue from Ranney's tour of duty in Texas." (American Frontier Life, Early Western Paintings and Prints, p.114)
Although similar in composition, differences between the two versions give each a unique mood and narrative sense. In the Anschutz Collection painting, an additional horseman in the distance shifts the focus of an apparent dispute between the trappers over the direction of the trail, supporting the interpretation of the picture as a buffalo hunting scene. In the present painting the trappers, and even their horses, listen intently, frozen in a moment of shared alertness to the presence of an unseen enemy that the original title implies. In a marked departure from his later, more anecdotal western paintings, Tait uses the isolation of the figures in the landscape to evoke both the vastness of the prairie, and its potential for hidden danger.
Cadbury concludes that "apart from the intrinsic merit of his paintings, Tait's significance today is his role in delineating what has evolved into one of the most durable icons of the West. From the trapper to the trader, scout, guide, buffalo hunter, cavalry trooper, and cowboy, it is the figure of an ordinary, weatherbeaten, often solitary man on horseback doing his job in an extraordinary country." (Arthur F. Tait, p. 128).