Sharp, Joseph Henry – American Artist

Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953)

Joseph Sharp is considered the father of the Taos Society of Artists. His extraordinary output of paintings in his long career made him one of the most prolific and prominent painters of the American Indian. Although he is known for his images of the American west, his other accomplishments included years of teaching in Cincinnati and publication of his works in several magazines.

Sharp was born in Bridgeport, Ohio in 1859. When he was a boy, his hearing was severely damaged as a result of a near-drowning incident. At age 12, his father died, and at age 14, Sharp was forced to drop out of school because his hearing loss had deteriorated and was virtually complete. Sharp then moved to Cincinnati to live with his aunt, and it was here that his formal art education began. He managed to enroll in the McMicken School of Design while still working and providing his mother with financial support. Afterwards he continued at the Cincinnati Art Academy and at age 22, he took his first trip abroad to Antwerp. Over the next decade, Sharp would study in Munich, Spain, Italy and Paris with notable artists such as Karl Marr and Cincinnati friend Frank Duveneck. In Cincinnati, Sharp was a student of Henry Farny, another renowned painter of Indians.

Sharp insisted on going West and it was suggested by Farny that he study the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico. His first trip was to Santa Fe in 1882. In 1893, Sharp discovered the Taos area, and became fascinated by the mixture of Indian and Spanish cultures. He also began teaching figure painting the year before at the Cincinnati Art Academy, and during the next several years he often split his time between Taos and Cincinnati, where he taught figure painting at the Art Academy. Sharp, however, did not restrict himself to Taos and its inhabitants. He realized that the Plains Indians were moving towards extinction, so he made several trips north, especially to document Indian survivors of the Battle of Little Big Horn.

Having achieved significant success with his artistic pursuits, Sharp resigned his teaching position in Cincinnati in 1902 and split his time between the Crow Agency in Montana and Taos. He was rapidly becoming the most highly regarded portrait artist of American Indians. In Montana alone, Sharp executed over 200 portraits of Plains Indians. After he had exhausted his possibilities at the Crow Agency, he moved permanently to Taos in 1912. From there he continued to work and travel until his death in 1953 at age 93.

While Sharp is revered in the artistic community for the founding of the Taos Society, one can persuasively argue that his contribution to study of the history and culture of the American Indian is far more important. He left behind thousands of paintings, and his documentation of Indian life is unrivaled. It was his constant goal to capture the essence of Indian life during a period when their cultures were slowly deteriorating.

In 1922 one reviewer wrote of Sharp’s landscapes, “Here you feel the glories of the autumn in the Cottonwood valley, you see the poetic beauty of the aspen trees, your eyes travel to great heights to mountains outlined against clear skies. You see the California desert in the springtime, when the sand verbenas are in blossom and nature has set her palette in beautiful, soft, delicate shades … The landscapes are so dazzling that one is impressed by a distant voicing of anoverpowering emotion on the part of this great Indiana painter.” Joseph Sharp once wrote “I think that I left the greatest part of my heart in Montana.”

Forrest Fenn wrote in his book, The Beat of the Drum and the Whoop of the Dance, “When asked why he painted Indians, Sharp replied, ‘I was always interested even as a small boy. I guess it was Fenimore Copper twho first attracted me to the Indian. It was the romance of youth, of boyhood, I suppose. Then when I came to know them I liked them for themselves. Perhaps they attracted me as subjects to paint becuase of their important historical value as the first Americans. Then the color of their costomes and dances, this no less attracted me.’”

Information courtesy of Coeur D’Alene Art Auction Company July 2005 and Cowan’s Auctions Inc. June 2006

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