Joseph Henry Sharp: A Symphony in Silence

by Bruce Eldredge, Nell Horton and Janis Ziller Becker

 



 

A prolific artist, whose many portraits of Native Americans from the Great Plains to the Pueblos of New Mexico influenced the American art scene at the turn of the century, Joseph Henry Sharp was a talented and well-trained figure painter in the nineteenth-century academic tradition. But Sharp also deserves distinction as a founder of the artists' colony at Taos.

Born in Bridgeport, Ohio in 1859, Henry was encouraged by his mother, Elizabeth, to express himself through paints and watercolors. Two early childhood experiences would have a profound effect upon his art. First, his love of James Fenimore Cooper's highly romanticized novel, Leatherstocking Tales, made a tremendous impression. Secondly, while still in grade school, Sharp personally encountered a band of Cooper's "Noble Red Men." The Indians were delayed on their way to Washington, D.C. at the train station in Wheeling, West Virginia, just across the river from Bridgeport. Dressed in full tribal regalia, they shot arrows at targets to the delight of the crowd. Henry was spellbound.[1]

At the age of twelve, Sharp nearly drowned. His mother frantically rolled him back and forth over a barrel to force the water from his lungs. Her actions saved his life but his ears became infected. A short time later, the young artist was completely deaf. Though he would later credit the affliction for strengthening his powers of concentration and observation, it ended a previously carefree youth. Public school no longer an option, Sharp worked in a nail factory and copper shop to ease the economic burdens of his nine-member family. He learned lip-reading and sign language and carried a note pad to jot down comments; he spoke slowly, carefully enunciating, self-conscious of his volume. Throughout Sharp's life, when conversing outdoors at dusk, he delighted in saying, ''We will have to go inside; it is getting too dark for me to hear!" [2]

Determined to develop his talents, Elizabeth sent some of Henry's drawings to the McMicken School of Design at the University of Cincinnati. Though only fourteen, he was granted admission. In the fall of 1874, he moved to Cincinnati to live with an aunt. Though he was impatient to begin his studies, Sharp worked six months, in the stockyards as a waterboy for laborers, to save enough money to pay the tuition. Enrolling in both day and night classes, he commenced almost fifteen years of formal academic and studio training.

Known as the "Queen of the West," Cincinnati was the seventh largest U.S. city at the time, and fast becoming a major art center. Sharp was able to befriend numerous artistic luminaries including: Frank Duveneck, Kenyon Cox, Edward Potthast, and, a man who would have a decisive influence on Sharp, western artist Henry Farny.

In 1876, fellow Ohioan General George Armstrong Custer rode with his 7th Cavalry Regiment into the pages of history at the Little Big Horn River. Sharp was fascinated with the death of Custer and his command. The event would later provide inspiration for a number of Sharp's works.

In 1881, seeking wider exposure to painting styles, Sharp used the profit from sales of several works and went to Europe. He chose to study with portrait painter Charles Verlat in Antwerp, Belgium, at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts, because, like most artists of the time, he would have to earn most of his income painting portraits. There, Sharp was exposed to and inspired by the works of the great Flemish and Dutch masters and contemporary European artists. [3]

Sharp returned to Cincinnati 1882, where he rented a studio in the same building as Farny's studio. By the late spring of 1883, Sharp had saved enough money to make his first trip west. Farny, his friend and mentor, directed him to the Pueblos of New Mexico, perhaps out of a desire to keep the younger artist away from his own Plains Indian subjects. Riding the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, Sharp traveled to Chicago and on to Kansas, clipped the corner of southeastern Colorado, and headed south to the New Mexico territories. Impatient to see it all, he stopped in Santa Fe only long enough to learn of the Rio Grande pueblos, particularly the great Taos settlement and its nearby Spanish village.

Briefly sketching the area and its peoples, Sharp grabbed a stage to Albuquerque, where he boarded a narrow gauge train to Tucson. The open cars were not intended for passengers; the trip was dusty and uncomfortable. Crossing to California from Tucson, Sharp boarded a ship sailing up the coast. It ran aground at the mouth of the Columbia River, dividing Oregon and Washington State. Sharp chose to stay and explore the Northwest on horseback and by stagecoach.


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