Henry Farny's first encounter with American Indians was as a child, shortly after his family emigrated from France to Warren, Pennsylvania. Even at age six he was unofficially "adopted" by the Sioux tribe near his home, spending much of his time observing their customs and learning their language. Over the next decade Farny frequently traveled to Europe, studying in Rome and Munich and learning various tenets of the Old Masters. Unfulfilled and uninspired, Farny returned to the United States and immediately began exploring the Western landscape. Encouraged by his friend and fellow artist, Albert Bierstadt, Farny made a number of trips west including a one thousand mile canoe trip down the Missouri River.
Farny's travels to the west provided him with a bounty of sketches, photographs, notes, and artifacts which he incorporated into his studio paintings of American Indians. Farny quickly realized that he did not have to travel abroad to find artistic inspiration declaring, "The plains, the buttes, the whole country and its people are fuller of material for the artist than any country in Europe." ( as quoted in R. Taft, Artists and Illustrators of the Old West 1840-1900, New York, 1953, p. 219) Though Farny's studio was in Cincinnati, he constructed his compositions by combining the materials he had collected and produced over his years of traveling through the West allowing Farny to painstakingly work out every meticulous detail. Many who visited Farny's studio criticized the artist for being indolent; catching him slumped over a canvas with his eyes closed. They did not know, however, that he was visualizing each element of his composition.
Farny was highly praised throughout his career for the realism and beauty of his paintings. He was one of the first artists to depict American Indians as people, not specimens or barbarians. He looked upon them with a sympathetic but unyieldingly realistic eye, often depicting the extremely isolated and solitary life of the tribes in the West. Though many American Indian tribes lived outside the lines of civilization, they were by no means uncivilized. A number of Western tribes grew fond of Farny, even granting him nicknames. The Sioux Indians called Farny "Wasitcha," meaning "White Faced maker Chief" with a corresponding symbol, the dot with a circle around it, commonly seen accompanying Farny's signature and visible in the present painting.
Similar to the style of Bierstadt, in Sign of Peace, Farny presents an expansive western landscape. Bathed in vivid light, the compositional space is wide open and unending, alluding to the pristine expansiveness of the West. Farny however, includes a number of visual schemas that renders his work distinctive. The foreground figures stand on either side of the center of the composition, leading the viewer into the landscape. The trees on the far left jut out from the flat ground as does the mountain on the far right, balancing the composition horizontally and framing the figures. The horses are not stallions but short, stocky, unkempt horses from the wild. The different positions of each horse displays Farny's knowledge of the animal's anatomy, most likely adapted by his numerous sketches. The artist also employs a high horizon line manifesting an intimate view, one from the American Indians' perspective. They are clearly unarmed and sending the sign of peace to the cowboys in the distance, who remain armed and with hands behind their back. The space between the two groups of men, nearly bare save a few dry bushes, suggests that figuratively there isn't much separating the us and them of the west.
In January of 1938 the Cincinnati Enquirer declared, "The great Indian painter's pictures grown in value overnight, and fortunate indeed are art lovers who own one." (as quoted in Indian Hill Historical Musuem, Henry F. Farny, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1975 p. 1) Sign of Peace is exemplary of Farny's mastery of detail and composition.