Joseph Henry Sharp was born in Bridgeport, Ohio in 1859. As a child, he almost drowned while swimming, but was resuscitated by his mother. Unfortunately, the accident damaged his hearing and he would eventually become completely deaf. At the age of twelve his father passed away and he began working to support his family. A few years later, at age 14, he moved to Cincinnati and lived with an aunt. There he was able to earn enough money to support himself and his mother. He also began to study art. Sharp had saved enough money to enroll at the McMicken School of Design, and later the Cincinnati Art Academy. While his loss of hearing made finishing his traditional schooling impossible, with the use of pad and pencil and the ability to read lips, he thrived in art school.
In 1881 and at the age of 24, Joseph Henry Sharp was able to travel to Europe and studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, Belgium. After returning to the U.S in 1883, he made his first trip west. There he visited pueblos in New Mexico, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Tucson, and began sketching members of American Indian tribes. J. H. Sharp still wanted to continue with his studies, so he returned to Europe. He went to Germany and Italy, but spent most of his time in Spain. He enjoyed studying Spanish masters such as El Greco, Velazquez, and Goya.
In 1892, Sharp came back to Cincinnati and began teaching at the Cincinnati Art Academy. He would continue teaching there until 1902. He earned additional money by painting portraits of Cincinnati society. In 1893, he traveled to Taos, New Mexico with a commission for Harper’s Weekly to illustrate Indian life. During this trip, he became interested in the purity of life and culture of the Taos Indians. His illustrations were a success and led to more commissions from many other publications.
Joseph Henry Sharp also spent time in Montana, on the battlefield of Little Big Horn. There he painted scenes of native life and portraits of the Plains tribes, including the Crow, Sioux, and Nez Perce. These paintings helped Sharp receive recognition for his work and in 1900 were exhibited in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian purchased eleven portraits. The exhibition also caught the eye of President Roosevelt, who took an interest in him and arranged for the Indian Commission to build a cabin at Little Big Horn in Montana for him to live and work. Sharp named it “Absarokee Hut” and designed it himself. The cabin was furnished in an Arts and Crafts style and decorated with Sharp’s collection of Indian artifacts, which included Navajo rugs, a buffalo robe, pottery, and baskets. These artifacts from Sharp’s collection often appear in his paintings. The cabin was featured in The Craftsman magazine.
Two years later, Phoebe Apperson Hearst (mother of William Randolph Hearst), purchased eighty paintings, putting him in a financial position to focus solely on painting. Hearst later commissioned an additional 75 portraits representing every major Plains tribe. Her collection of Sharp’s work was donated to the University of California, Berkeley.
In 1909, Sharp purchased a former Penitente chapel in Taos for use as a studio and moved there permanently in 1912. In 1915, along with E. Irving Couse, Oscar E. Berninghaus, Ernest L. Blumenschein, W. Herbert Dunton, Bert Geer Phillips, he became one of the founding members of the Taos Society of Artists. While in Taos, it was important for Sharp to know his subjects well and truly capture their features. J. H. Sharp viewed himself as a historian as well as painter and recognized that these tribes and their way of life would soon come to an end. He was a storyteller with his paintings. He often sketched outdoors and would finish his paintings in the studio.
In 1949, The Gilcrease Museum (Tulsa, Oklahoma) held a retrospective of Sharp’s work. The Museum holds the largest collection of Sharp’s work today.
At the age of 93, Joseph Henry Sharp moved to California, where he became ill and died in 1953. He helped to record a way of life that was changing and is now gone.
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Western Art Collector