Joseph Henry Sharp Biography


A gifted figure painter, Joseph Henry Sharp was renowned for his portrayals of Native Americans, ranging from the Indians of the Great Plains to the Pueblos of New Mexico.  Sharp was celebrated for his emphasis on realism and accuracy; indeed, the artist distinguished the members of one tribe from another by carefully noting differences in physiognomy, costume and artifacts.  As a result, Sharp's work was admired by collectors and anthropologists alike.  

Born in Bridgeport, Ohio, Sharp began painting as a boy.  During these years, he was exposed to the American Indian through James Fenimore Cooper's romantic series of novels, The Leatherstocking Tales.  Sharp later told a writer for New Mexico Magazine that "it was Fenimore Cooper who first attracted me to the Indian ... Perhaps they attracted me as subjects to paint because of their historical value as First Americans."  

At the age of twelve, Sharp nearly died by drowning.  Although his mother had saved him, his ears became so infected that he soon became completely deaf.  Unable to attend public school, he worked in a nail factory and copper shop while learning lip-reading and sign language in his spare time.  However, rather than becoming a hindrance, his deafness increased his powers of observation and his ability to concentrate.  

Aware of her son's artistic abilities, Sharp's mother sent some of his drawings to the McMicken School of Design in Cincinnati.  The administration was duly impressed, granting Sharp admission at the age of fourteen years.  Arriving in the "Queen City" in the autumn of 1874, he spent several years at the McMicken, attending both day and evening classes.  However, like other American painters of his generation, Sharp decided to supplement his training by studying abroad.  In 1881, he went to Belgium, continuing his studies at the Antwerp Academy of Fine Arts under the portrait painter, Charles Verlat.  Outside the classroom, Sharp had the opportunity to familiarize himself with the work of Flemish and Dutch Old Masters as well as with contemporary European painting.

Returning to Cincinnati in 1882, Sharp rented studio space in the same building as Henry Farny, the noted western painter who became his friend and mentor.  Inspired by Farny, who advised him to seek out the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, Sharp made his first trip to the West in the late spring of 1883.  During his visit, which took him to Taos, New Mexico as well as Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington, he made numerous sketches, documenting the differences between the various Indian tribes he encountered.

Sharp travelled to Europe again in 1885, refining his skills as a figure painter by studying with the realist painter, Karl von Marr, in Munich and at the Académie Julian in Paris.  He returned to Cincinnati in 1885, where he proceeded to play a lively role on the local art scene.  One year later, he joined Farny and other local artists in establishing the Cincinnati Art Club.  In 1892, Sharp joined the faculty of the Cincinnati Art Academy as the instructor of the life class.  

Sharp spent the summer of 1890 at the Crow Agency in Montana, on the Old Custer Battlefield.  Fascinated with the Crow people and eager to document their ceremonies and lifestyles, he spent the next ten years painting over two hundred canvases depicting the Crow, as well as members of other northern plains Indian tribes.  Around 1900, President Theodore Roosevelt had his Indian Commissioners build Sharp his own studio and cabin on the famous battlegrounds.  

Sharp's carefully crafted Indian subjects were subsequently purchased by such esteemed collectors as Phoebe Hearst, mother of William Randolph Hearst, and Joseph G. Butler of Youngstown, Ohio.  As a result, Sharp was able to quit teaching in 1902 in order to paint on a full-time basis.  His reputation was also enhanced when the Chief of the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution purchased eleven of his paintings for the Institution's collection.

During the next 1900s, Sharp spent his winters painting the Plains Indians at the Crow Agency and his summers in Taos, where he depicted the local Pueblo tribe.  However, after the death of his wife, Addie, in 1913, Sharp settled permanently in Taos.  Although he stopped visiting the Crow Agency, he continued to depict the Plains Indians using photographs, sketches and Pueblo models dressed in Plains costume.  

In 1912, Sharp became a charter member of the Taos Society of Artists, along with Ernest Blumenshein, Oscar Berninghaus and several others.  Often referred to as the "spiritual father" of the group, Sharp was one of its most respected and best loved members, known for his humor, kindness and patience.  In the ensuing years, he continued to paint Indian subjects, selling his work to such noted patrons as Thomas Gilcrease, the Tulsa oilman who purchased more of Sharp's paintings than any other collector.

As well as living in Taos, Sharp maintained homes in Hawaii and California, where he painted colorful landscapes, marines and floral still lifes.  His artistic affiliations included the American Federation of Artists, the California Art Club, the California Print Makers Society, and the Salmagundi Club.

Sharp died in Pasadena, California in August of 1953.  At his memorial service in Taos, Ernest Blumenschein described him as "the reporter, the recorder of the absolute integrity of the American Indian ... he will go down in history with Russell and Remington and the few early artists of Indian life."  

In addition to the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in Tulsa, Sharp's paintings can be found in major public collections throughout the United States including the National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; the Houston Museum of Fine Arts; the Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas; the Cincinnati Art Museum; and the Museum of Santa Fe, among many others.