Few American artists captured the frontier spirit and raw beauty of the American West with the skill and precision of Henry Farny. Farny's fascination with the American Indian began soon after he and his family moved to America from France. Originally settling in Western Pennsylvania, the Farnys' home was located near the Onandaigua tribe and the family quickly found themselves immersed in the native culture. Shortly thereafter, the family moved to the more urban setting of Cincinnati, where the artist spent most of his life, but Farny kept with him a fondness and interest in Indian culture that would consistently reemerge in his work. Farny's sympathetic and reverent depictions of Indians are best seen in works such as Winter Encampment.
Building on his childhood fascination with Indians, Farny made his first trip to the West in 1881 and became an active participant in the social life of the Indians who lived near Fort Yates along the Missouri River. He again ventured west in 1883 and 1884 and continued to return until his last trip in 1894. During these trips, Farny gathered materials for the oil paintings and gouaches he would later complete in his Cincinnati studio. Aided by on-site sketches and photographs, both that he had taken personally and others that he purchased, Farny had gathered sufficient material and firsthand experience to paint the Indians of the American West. Having also made several trips to Europe in search of additional inspiration, Farny soon realized that his trips to the West were far more fulfilling than any of his European sojourns. Captivated by the landscape and people that he encountered, Farny once remarked: "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)
In Winter Encampment, Farny has portrayed an Indian tribe settling in for the night. Tribe members carry out their nightly duties such as securing the horses and gathering wood for the fire. The bitter cold stings their weathered faces as they make their way back to their teepees to retire for the night. Farny's depiction is straightforward and unembellished, relaying his true experiences with the Indians. In 1893, a critic commented on Farny's representations of Indians, stating that his portrayals "are not the Indians of Fenimore Cooper. The dominant quality of the Farny Indian is absolute realism. He paints the Indian at home in camp--not the idealized Indian chasing impossible buffalo on impossible Arab chargers. The Indian horses that Farny paints are the small, muscular, shaggy, uncouth mustangs of the Far West. He has seen both with the eye of an artist, tempered by the mind of a poet, and verified by the fidelity of an illustrator." (as quoted in Indian Hill Historical Museum, Henry F. Farny, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1975, pp. 7-8)
While Indian life certainly captivated Farny, he was also particularly keen on portraying the natural environment that he encountered. Though the Indian continually factored into his compositions, Farny gradually became very interested in the luminous effects of the changing time of day. The blanket of snow in the foreground of Winter Encampment shows a hint of bluish-purple, while the sky in the background radiates with pinks and purples of the twilight hour. Denny Carter notes, "His predilection for sunsets and hazy twilight scenes heightened the serenity created by his balanced compositions producing a tranquil, peaceful mood. The quietism and luminism of Farny's late work are manifestations of a long tradition in American art, particularly practiced by earlier artists such as John Kensett (1816-1872), Fitz Hugh[sic] Lane (1804-1865), and Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904)." (D. Carter, Henry Farny, New York, 1978, p. 34)
President Theodore Roosevelt, a close friend of Farny's, once told the artist that "the Nation owes you a great debt. It does not realize now, but it will some day. You are preserving for future generations phases of American history that rapidly are passing away." (as quoted in Henry F. Farny, p. 1) At the time, works such as Winter Encampment provided a glimpse into the life and landscape found in the Western frontier and continue to serve as a record of a bygone moment in American history.