Few Americans artist captured the spirit and raw beauty of the West with the skill and precision of Henry Farny. Born in 1847 in Ribeauville, France, Farny moved to the United States with his family arrived. Farny's fascination with the American Indian began soon after he and his family moved to America from France as his mother, Jeanette, often gave medical treatment to the members of an Onandaigua tribe that lived near the family's home in Western Pennsylvania. While the Farnys soon moved to the more urban Cincinnati, where the artist spent most of his life, he retained a fondness and interest in the Native American culture. Farny's treatment of the American Indians won the artist great popularity and acclaim during his lifetime and Indian on Horseback is a superior example of the artist's most notable works.
Farny made his first trip to the West in 1881 and became an active participant in the social life of the Native Americans who lived near Fort Yates along the Missouri River. He returned again to the West in 1883 and 1884 and continued to visit until 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 taken and purchased, Farny had gathered sufficient material and firsthand experience to paint the Indians of the American West. Working in his studio, rather than on the frontier, Farny freely used landscapes and figures interchangeably. "After collecting a large cache of Indian material while with the Sioux at Fort Yates, he returned to Cincinnati with a number of sketches, mostly Indian portraits rather than landscapes. In addition, he took over 124 photographs and acquired a considerable number of artifacts, such as a buffalo tooth necklace, a war bonnet, and a tobacco pouch. This material became the basis for Farny's Indian paintings, because he used and reused certain motifs from these sources to create his compositions." (D. Carter, Henry Farny, New York, 1978, p. 21)
Several of the most effective tools Farny employed were a result of his interest in Japanese art. Farny learned these avant-garde devices from the Japanese design books he kept in his studio. As early as 1873, Farny recognized and assimilated the then unusual aesthetic ideas of Japanese art which gained popularity and admiration among European and American artists of the day. The combination of this cutting off at the edge, a strong horizontal format and a high horizon line is a formula Farny used once he recognized the balance and strength it could lend his images. Many of Farny's most successful works employ this characteristic composition. He also often used the motif of an American Indian traveling in the evening with a horizon line beyond the distant trees.
Indian on Horseback is a classic composition for Farny as the artist has approached his subject from a directly forward, yet slightly elevated position. This enables him to capture an intimate sense of scene unfolding before him, while maintaining a narrator's distance. Farny's audience is allowed to see the subjects at extremely close range, complete to the most particular detail. Between 1893 and 1912, Farny treated the American Indian more as an element in the landscape and became very interested in light effects. Executed in 1899, Farny has imbued Indian on Horseback with a luminescence in the dabs of orange hues glowing through the purple hazed trees and the saturated gold sky, which is suffused with light. 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, Fitz Hugh Lane, and Martin Johnson Heade. Their paintings often emphasized a pronounced horizon line, water with its reflections, and soft harmonious light. Farny's late paintings, then, did not break new artistic ground but rather represented the application of older concepts to the western genre...Even though Farny is known primarily as a painter of Indians, his depiction of the light and mood of the Western landscape will probably remain his most lasting contribution to American art." (Henry Farny, p. 34)
The artist, well-respected by scholars and connoisseurs of American art, enjoys the highest praise for his work. In an introduction to the monograph published for the first major retrospective of the artist's work in many years, Millard F. Rogers, Jr., director of the Cincinnati Art Museum noted: "Among painters of the American Indian and the West, there is none better than Henry F. Farny. There are better known artists, to be sure, such as Frederic Remington and Charles Russell, but no one equaled Farny's careful rendering of the western landscape, his strong yet sympathetic depiction of the American Indian, and his well-crafted and lucid painting of dramatic incidents in the Far West. Equally accomplished in oil or gouache, Farny concentrated on a limited genre and found ready patronage. Today's collectors have the same eager appreciation of Farny's glimpses of the old and now-disappeared West that his patrons did at the turn of the century." (Henry Farny, p. 11)