Joseph Henry Sharp: A Symphony in Silence

by Bruce Eldredge, Nell Horton and Janis Ziller Becker



The native tribes of this region, the Umatillas, Nez Percé, Shoshone, and Klikitat, were a startling contrast to those in the Southwest: vastly different dwellings, heavier clothing, and whereas many Southwest Indians farmed, those of the Northwest were generally hunters and fishermen. Sharp was amazed at the rugged country, and at the myriad of people who had roamed the expansive, desolate land, leaving little, if any sign of their passage. In the manner of George Catlin, Sharp tried to collect and document as much as possible, carefully distinguishing between tribes. He returned to Cincinnati, loaded with sketches.

Recognizing the limits of art education in Cincinnati, Sharp decided to return to Europe again in 1885, for additional study to improve and refine his style. He trained in Munich, with Karl von Marr, and at the Academe Julien in Paris. The art scene in Paris was the most exciting in the world; artistic styles ranged from the classical to the romantic, to realism in the tradition of Courbet. Landscape painting was in vogue, and the techniques of the Barbizon School, with its revolutionary notion of painting outdoors, had by now become a Paris tradition.

In 1889, he returned to Cincinnati in time to help Farny and the other artists in the city establish the Cincinnati Art Club the following year. The Club soon became a center of cultural society: promoting concerts, throwing extravagant parties and sponsoring shows to exhibit its members' works.

It was at an art club function that Sharp was introduced to Addie Byram, the young music student he would wed on June 16, 1892. One year later, with Addie's encouragement, Sharp made an important decision to spend his summer vacations away from his teaching duties at the Cincinnati Art Academy and to return to Taos to paint.

After a successful summer in Taos, where he became the first artist to spend regular time painting the Taos Indians, Sharp and his wife returned to Cincinnati. The following summer, he received a two year leave to study in Europe. Here, he met fellow art students Ernest L. Blumenschein and Bert Phillips in a cafe in Paris and proceeded to share with them the sights and subject matter to be found in New Mexico.[4] When Sharp returned home, he began to alternate between summers in Taos painting and the academic year in Cincinnati teaching.

Later, in the summer of 1898, Bert Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein were driving south to Mexico when a wheel on their wagon broke about twenty miles north of Taos. Blumenschein hiked to the village for repair and returned ecstatic over the area and its inhabitants. Phillips was so taken that he became a permanent resident; Blumenschein returned several years later.

Sharp changed his 1890 summer routine and went to the Crow Agency in Montana. Drawn there because of a fascination with the Crow people and the Agency's location near the Little Big Horn where Custer was killed, he began the daunting task of recording the changing lives of the people and the faces of the old warriors. Sharp felt an urgent need to capture the spirit of these Indians and to document their lives before an era passed. During the next ten years, he was to paint over 200 portraits of the Indian participants in Custer's Battle and to take 400 photographs of them. He would average two paintings per week during his most productive period.

The new century saw several important developments for the artist. The first was the advent of important patrons such as Phoebe Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst, and Joseph G. Butler of Youngstown, Ohio. They began to purchase paintings from Sharp, and they especially admired his new Indian portraits. This support and patronage enabled Sharp to give up teaching and devote his entire energies to painting. Another important development was an exhibition of his paintings at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. Although he received no press notices and made no sales, the Chief of the Bureau of Ethnology saw the show and afterwards arranged for the Smithsonian Institution to purchase eleven paintings. Within the space of one year, Sharp's critical and financial success was secured. [5]

Sharp began an eight year period during which his artistic work flourished. He focused on painting the Plains Indians in the winter from his "Absarokee Hut" at the Crow Agency, and the Taos Pueblo Indians in summer. Sandwiched between these seasons, the couple spent time in Pasadena, California, where Addie's family had established residence. When asked why he wintered in Montana and summered in Taos, Sharp responded: "At this season of the year [winter], the Indians [at Crow Agency] have more time for posing -- which they are readily induced to do for a consideration of two dollars a sitting -- and the snowy landscape, sage brush, foothills, and winter foliage along the Little Big Horn River are more paintable."[6]

During 1905, Sharp, Addie, and Samuel Guilford Reynolds, the Indian Agent, supervised and helped with the construction of the couple's home-the "Absarokee Hut" (Crow Hut). They were aided in this feat by Smoky, a Negro Indian policeman, and the services of Agency jail inmates, who provided much of the heavy labor. Sharp never had title to this cabin and the attached studio until he purchased it from the government in the 1920s. Still, he considered the cabin to be his even though it had been built with government materials and labor on government land. [7]

To move about the Agency and paint during the harsh winter, Sharp outfitted a sheepherder's wagon with a wood stove and a mica window to let in natural light. Christening this contraption "The Prairie Dog," Sharp would often paint outdoors until his paints froze, then go inside, stoke the fire, thaw out, and head out to paint again.

Sharp suffered a serious eye injury in 1908, which coupled with his wife's deteriorating health, caused him great anxiety and depleted their hard earned savings. Following Addie's death in 1913, Sharp rarely went back to the Crow Agency; the memories were too painful for him. He took up permanent residence in Taos. Less than a year after Addie's death, Sharp courted and married her younger sister Louise Byram. This was more a marriage of convenience than a love match, but each was comfortable with the other from their long association and travels together during Addie's lifetime.

Firmly settled in Taos, Sharp continued to paint his beloved Indians using photographs, sketches and Pueblo models dressed in Plains regalia. The story is told that Sharp would erect his Plains tepee inside his Taos studio and pose Pueblo models around a small fire. Sharp cut a small hole in the side of the tepee to discreetly observe the models and the interior as he painted. These beautiful, glowing interior scenes are considered by many to be Sharp's forte. And, these paintings revealed Sharp's genuine love for the Indian. Once again he verbalized his feelings:

I was first attracted to the human side of the Indian; the character of the old warriors I found particularly interesting. Their romance and idealism are the most beautiful symbols brought down in the annals of time; their religion, their legends and superstitions are all unique. Not these alone, however, brought the greatest influence to bear on my work. It was more the humanity of the present, the aspect we can see, know and feel that was my greatest inspiration. [8]

A major part of Sharp's life included the camaraderie with the other artists in Taos. Along with Phillips, Blumenschein, Oscar Berninghaus, Herbert Dunton, and E.I. Couse, Sharp was a charter member of the Taos Society of Artists, which was founded in 1912. The group's purpose was "to develop a high standard of art among its members and to aid the diffusion of taste for art in general." [9] Sharp was called the spiritual father of the group, and he was one of the best loved and most respected. His fellow artists described Sharp as witty, genial, kind, cheerful, friendly, and patient. He is often referred to as the artists' artist.

Sharp lived most of his life in Taos and Montana and had additional homes in Hawaii and California. These areas certainly provided an abundance of picturesque scenes and florals to paint. In Taos, Sharp's garden was known as the most beautiful in town and naturally became an inspiration and source of subject matter for him. Friends walking by usually found the artist behind his easel, his battered hat on his head, sitting among the flowers, fruit trees, and willow. Louise took great pleasure in making floral arrangements from the flower beds for her husband to paint. She always arranged the bouquets in vases collected during their extensive travels abroad. Many paintings show urns from China and Japan or pottery from San Juan and Santa Clara.

During the course of his career, Sharp had extremely good financial fortune. He consistently sold paintings, received a fair price for them and enjoyed the patronage of many supporters. Except for the burdens associated with Addie's illness and death, he always managed to more than cover his annual expenses. In 1930 at the beginning of the Great Depression, he earned more than $20,000 from the sale of his art, and his bank account balance was over $50,000, a handsome sum for the time. Part of Sharp's success in selling his art was due to his attitude that he frequently expressed to purchasers. He would say good-heartedly, "If my price is too high, you can have it for less." Often offering his purchasers a discount of as much as fifty-percent on his work, he was even willing to "throw in a good frame."[10]

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