Making Sweet Grass Medicine. c/ 1920. Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953)
Joseph Henry Sharp was born in Bridgeport, Ohio on September 27, 1859 to Irish immigrant parents. His father was a merchant. From childhood on, Sharp was fascinated by anything that concerned Indians. He read Leatherstocking Tales by James Fenimore Cooper where he first learned about "the noble red man."
An accident when he was twelve, changed his life, he was playing under a bridge spanning a river, fell in and almost drowned. He was pulled out and at home his mother rolled him back and forth over a barrel to force water from his lungs. This saved his life but left him with a severe hearing loss, which later made him totally deaf. His father died that same year and Henry began working at a nail factory to help support his family. His hearing loss made schooling impossible. Later he moved to Cincinnati, lived with his aunt, worked, sent money to his mother.
Working, he enrolled in the Cincinnati Art Academy. But like many before him, he traveled to Europe to study in Antwerp, Belgium and the Academie Julian in Paris and then with Frank Duveneck in Italy.
After he returned to America, he married, taught at the Cincinnati Art Academy and painted portraits of local society members. But the call of the West was strong, and he and a fellow artist traveled to New Mexico on a commissionFrom Harper's Weekly to illustrate life at the Taos Pueblo. Later he became one of the founding members of the Taos Society of Artists.
His fascination however was with the battle of the Little Big Horn, June 25, 26th, 1876, where General George Armstrong Custer, head of the army of the United States Cavalry, 212 strong, were killed in conflict against superior Indian forces. Sharp remembered the headlines, "Custer's Seventh Cavalry Massacred by Savages." Custer was hailed as a hero. Later investigations would raise questions about the conduct of Custer and his fellow officers. Sharp, who was twelve at the time, held Custer as a hero.
Twenty-five years later, Sharp, faced these same Indian warriors who sat for their portraits. President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned him to paint these portraits of the 200 Native American warriors who had survived the Battle of the Little Big Horn. They became his friends.
When he was 93, he traveled to California, intending to return to New Mexico, but died in Sacramento.
During his life he painted 10, 500 works of art, of which 7, 800 were Native American subjects, and 3, 200 were portraits. He was a Historian of the West as well as a painter. His works are in museums all over the United States and in the Smithsonian.