The Old Chief's Query signed 'J H Sharp' (lower left) oil on canvas 30 x 36 1/4in overall: 36 1/4 x 42 1/2in
PROVENANCE: With Kennedy Galleries, Inc., New York, New York Private collection, Rancho Mirage, California
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 Burt Phillips and Ernest Blumenschein made their historic wagon trip.
While splitting his time painting in both Montana and New Mexico, Sharp amassed a huge personal collection of Native American artifacts and costumes. It was important to him that these things be preserved and understood, and that he was closely connected to and had a thorough understanding of his subject matter. He even made sure that he got to know all of his portrait subjects personally. In this way he was as much an anthropologist as a painter.
Sharp left behind a vast cultural record of Native American life, landscapes, and portraiture. His work is poetic and steeped in a deep nostalgia that he felt all his life for the vanishing culture of the American Indian and the old west.
The Old Chief's Query typifies Sharp's interest in capturing the romance of American Indian culture. The soft glowing colors in the warm interior of the teepee set the stage for private conversation. Little needs to be said by those present. The attention of the young braves hangs on a few words from their elder. It is a quiet moment, as Sharp's interior scenes often are. This mastery of capturing the pause and slow rhythm of conversation is probably due in no small part to the childhood accident which left Sharp deaf.
According to L.M. Bickerstaff, in his book Pioneer Artists of Taos, "Sharp had the great gift of true friendship, the friendship that is based on respect, and of the hundreds of Indians who posed for him many were friends." The respect and integrity of his sitters are commonly evident in his works. A 1901 article, offered the following review of Sharp's fondness for his Native American brethren: "...he is unexcelled by any other living painter of like subjects. There is a simplicity about these paintings by Mr. Sharp that is very impressive, and they are of as much historical value as his portraits...[they] show a strength of treatment, and a finish of detail, together with fine coloring, that evinces a master hand."
At Sharp's funeral, fellow Taos artist Ernest Blumenschein expressed the enduring appeal of Sharp's work, saying, "some of these paintings will live as long as paint lasts on canvas. He was 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 trying to arrive at real values in our group of Taos artists, I sometimes wonder if our ambitious attempts along high art lines will be worth as much to the world as the honest unvarying recordings of this simple man, Henry Sharp."