Considered by many to be the 'father of the Taos art colony,' Joseph Henry Sharp is celebrated for his detailed and extensive depictions of these dozens of tribes of the Southwestern and Plains Indians. Born in Ohio in 1859, Sharp attended the Cincinnati Art Academy, where he met Henry Farny. In 1893, encouraged by Farny, Sharp first visited Taos and the Pueblo Indians there. His experiences and illustrations from the trip, later published in Harper's Weekly, formed the basis of a career devoted to the American landscape and the native people who lived there.
In 1901, Sharp was given a commission by the Crow Agency to establish a studio in Montana near Wounded Knee. Sharp repeatedly returned to his Montana studio in the winter to study the local tribes, where he most likely painted The Medicine Teepee (fig. 1). "When asked why, after having seen and been deeply impressed by Taos in 1893, Sharp decided to spend the first few years of his career as a painter of Indians in Montana, he replied, 'I went north because I realized that Taos would last longer,' revealing a startling vision of the future of both his chosen career and that of the Indians themselves." (L.M. Bickerstaff, Pioneer Artists of Taos, Denver, Colorado, 1983, p. 68) From 1902 to 1910 Sharp was a constant traveler, splitting his time between summers in Taos and winters in Montana, with occasional trips to New York, Chicago, and Cincinnati. "More than one person wondered why Sharp spent his winters in Montana and his summers in Taos when it would seem logical to do the reverse...Sharp's standard reply to the question had little to do with the outside temperature: 'At this season of the year [winter], the Indians [at Crow Agency] have more time for posing...and the snowy landscape, sage brush foothills, and winter foliage along the Little Big Horn River are more paintable.'" (as quoted in F. Fenn, Teepee Smoke, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2007, pp. 165-66)
The Medicine Teepee was executed in 1903 and is one of the artist's most complex and extensive early paintings, depicting various Indian groups and teepees set against the expansive landscape of the High Plains. A tribal elder sits at right with pipe in hand in a meditative pose while a larger group assembles under the teepee at center for a council gathering. Sharp invites the viewer into the scene first along a diagonal line of vision that leads to a distant tent at far left with three more figures. He then completes the scene with a staggered outcropping of vivid teepees which lead one's eye into the distant landscape of foothills and snowcapped mountains. The pointillist style of brushwork employed by Sharp in the sky serves as an effective contrast to the more tangible structure of the pure color and more deliberate brushwork in the foreground and lends an ethereal quality to the expansive western sky. Sharp's "favorite time of year in Montana was fall, when the wide, lustrous panoramas were filled with brilliant colors and the changing textures that were the first hint of the coming winter. Fall was also the time of celebration, including the great gatherings for the annual Crow Industrial Fair, which was started in 1903 by [Samuel Guilford] Reynolds to promote agriculture among the Indians. Hundreds of Indians came from all over: Cheyenne from the nearby Lame Deer Agency, Sioux from Standing Rock, Shoshone from the south, and Blackfeet from 400 miles north near the Canadian border. Their teepees were set up east of town across the river." (Teepee Smoke, p. 172)
Sharp was deeply engaged with American Indian culture and has always been widely lauded for his closely observed physiognomy, costume, and interiors. His are the works of a close observer striving for an honest and quiet depiction of American Indian frontier life, not the grandiose scenes of Western myth for east coast consumption promoted by his predecessors. "Such a fascination with wildness and openness has been a crucial part of the imaginative meaning of the frontier throughout much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries," yet Sharp and his contemporaries sought to change this perception. "The popular visual and cinematic image of the Indian is almost totally identified with the nomadic horse and buffalo cultures of the plains. More than any other Native Americans, the Plains Indians have come to exemplify for Americans that sense of mystery and otherness on a heroic scale that is so important to our imaginings of the frontier." (J.C. Taylor, America as Art, New York, 1976, pp. 168, 170)
Surrounded by and living in union with the expansive terrain, the figures in The Medicine Teepee achieve Sharp's desired effect, underscoring the harmony of man and nature--a theme established early in the canon of American art by Hudson River School founders, Frederic Church and Thomas Cole (fig. 2). The transcendental writings of Henry David Thoreau had helped to inspire artists of an earlier generation to develop their paintings past a more traditional academic format to integrate themes of the nature's reverence and the ideals of people's assimilation into this nature during the nation's expansion. "And though Thoreau's frontier was nothing but a small lake and a patch of woods a few miles from Concord, Massachusetts, his quest in nature for a transcendent union with reality and the self has often been echoed in imaginings of the West. Thoreau himself saw the West as a symbol not of flight from civilization but as man's urge to a higher level of self-realization and discovery. The Walden impulse has been an important inspiration for many of the greatest Western landscape artists and photographers." (America as Art, pp. 177-78) Indeed, The Medicine Teepee is a testament to the reverence Sharp felt for the Plains Indians and their plight in the rapidly changing American landscape and a seminal example from one of the most storied artists of the West in the twentieth century.