(1859 - 1953)
Joseph Henry Sharp is widely considered to have been the “Spiritual Father” of the Taos Society of Artists. He was the first painter to visit New Mexico, before Phillips and Blumenschein made their historic wagon trip. He left behind a vast cultural record of Native American life, landscapes, and portraiture. His work is often referred to as poetic, and is steeped in the deep nostalgia that he felt all his life for the vanishing culture of the Native American and the old west.
Sharp was born in Bridgeport, Ohio, to Irish parents. From his earliest days, he was fascinated by anything he could learn about the American Indians. The young Joseph Henry began to realize that he had a natural facility for drawing, and he sketched often in the outdoors.
In the late 19th century, studying in Europe was still considered compulsory for any aspiring artist. Sharp spent two years at the Antwerp Academy studying in the realist tradition; history painting and portraiture.
Sharp’s first trip to the West was in 1883 at age 24. He visited pueblos in New Mexico (though not Taos), Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Tucson, and then took a boat up the West Coast and disembarked in the Washington Territory. In the northwest he encountered Native Americans from numerous tribes, and the sketches he did on that trip would be the basis for his first Native American portraits. His love of the West notwithstanding, Sharp seemed to feel that his studies were never really over, and he again set off to Europe. He went to Germany, Italy, but spent most of his time in Spain, studying the Spanish masters El Greco, Velazquez, and Goya.
Sharp visited Taos for the first time in 1893, on a commission from Harper’s Weekly. He was captivated by the then unspoilt life of the Indigenous people. The pictures he completed for the commission were well received, and led to further illustration work with numerous publications.
In 1900, an exhibition of Sharp's portraits of Plains Indians traveled to Paris and to Washington D.C. They would prove to be a turning point in his career. The Smithsonian Institution purchased 11 portraits, and President Roosevelt took an interest in Sharp’s work. Two years later, Phoebe Apperson Hearst (mother of William Randolph Hearst), bought 80 paintings from Sharp. It was then that Sharp began to devote himself exclusively to painting.
Sharp began to spend summers in New Mexico, and in 1909 he purchased an old Penitente chapel to use as a studio. In 1912 Sharp relocated to Taos permanently, becoming a charter member of the Taos Society of Artists, working and exhibiting with the group for many years.
Sharp threw himself into recording the environment and life of the pueblo. He generally sketched outdoors, and completed paintings in his studio. He continued to enjoy critical, as well as financial success, which allowed him to continue his already extensive travels. He spent years in Spain, went to Africa, South America, Japan and China.
In 1949, the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, mounted a retrospective of Sharp’s paintings, and still holds the largest collection in the world of the artist’s work. At age 93, Joseph Henry Sharp closed his studio in Taos. He intended to return the following year but fell ill, and died in August 1953 in Pasadena. He left behind thousands of paintings, an unparalleled visual record of the Native American. The National Cyclopedia of American Biography neatly describes his work: “His paintings express a strange poetic note, rare sense of beauty, and rich tonal perception.” Hardly is there a painter who could strive for more. But Sharp achieved something else: he was one of the West’s most important historians, and America owes him a debt for it.