Born in France, Henry Farny immigrated to Warren, Pennsylvania with his parents and shortly thereafter settled in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he spent the remainder of his life. Following the path of earlier Cincinnati artists, Farny traveled to Europe studying first in Dusseldorf and then in Munich. In Dusseldorf, Farny not only acquired the technical skills of the local masters but also made the acquaintance of Albert Bierstadt who encouraged him to travel to the American West. Farny's stay in Munich introduced him to the bravura brushwork and dark, moody palette of Frank Duveneck, the preeminent American artist working in southern Germany at that time. The training Farny received in Europe provided him with the most advanced and sophisticated ideas of the late nineteenth century and separated him from many of his contemporaries who chose to depict the West and the Native American as their subject.
After returning from travel and study abroad, Farny made his first trip to the West in 1881, presumably to witness the capture of Sitting Bull. Arriving after the removal of Sitting Bull from Fort Yates along the Missouri River, Farny stayed on and became an active participant in the social life of the Plains Indians who lived near the fort. (D.M. Carter, Henry Farny, New York, 1978, p. 21) Farny returned to the West in 1883 and 1884 in order to witness the final laying of the Northern Pacific Transcontinental Railroad and to illustrate an article for Century Magazine. During repeated visits to the West in the early 1890s, Farny gathered materials for the oil paintings and gouaches he would later complete in his Cincinnati studio. Collecting artifacts and props from the Indians he came to know affectionately, Farny recreated, and often repeated, scenes and events he witnessed on the Plains and in the mountains. Aided by on-site sketches and photographs both taken and purchased, Farny had gathered sufficient material and firsthand experience to paint the Native Americans of the American West in a sympathetic and lasting fashion.
In the Badlands, from 1910 was executed during the height of Henry Farny's painting career and is an exceptional example of the artist's work in watercolor. In this picture Farny presents the viewer with what appears to be an early morning scene of a family of Native Americans on a scouting mission, possibly on a hunt or a migration. In contrast to many of Farny's contemporaries who employed unnatural effects of light and atmosphere, with explosions of action and spirit to create drama and emotion, Farny succeeded in portraying these sentiments with a unusual subtlety and harmony, ultimately more in keeping with reality.
In the Badlands reveals the artist's masterful handling of color, space and atmosphere within a composition in a thoroughly convincing and effective manner. In this picture Farny selected a palette of pale greens, blues and taupes. Borrowed from his Munich days, this muted and almost monochromatic scheme reinforces the idea of open, vast space. Perhaps with Farny's depiction of the family of Plains Indians standing near the edge of a desolate cliff, overlooking a great crevasse as a prelude to the encroachment of the United States on their dwindling lands.
In addition to the symbolic overtones of the subject, the naturalness and realism of In the Badlands can be attributed to the compositional devices Farny routinely used in his major oil paintings. Several of the most effective tools Farny employed were a result of Farny's interest in Japanese art. As Denny Carter writes, "By varying the viewpoint of the composition, cutting off elements at the edge of the painting, and employing asymmetrical compositions, Farny used the Japanese motifs to achieve a more realistic representation of the landscape." (Henry Farny, p. 28) 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 unique aesthetic ideas of Japanese art which gained popularity and admiration among European and American artists of the day.
In In the Badlands, Farny arranges a wonderfully flowing composition in a balanced fashion. By placing the armed Indian with horses in the foreground and a mother and baby wrapped in a blanket in the background to the left, the scouting figure to the right, combined with the slanting, downward curve of the cliff's edge creates a pattern for the viewer's eyes to flow through the picture with easy and undaunted interest. Although the figures are standing on the barren stretch of land marked by mountain tops and random sage bushes, the figures are positioned in such a way as to suggest depth and recession into space.
The combination of a strong horizontal format, a high contrasting horizon line in the distance and tactical grouping of figures became something of a formula for Farny once he recognized the balance and strength it could lend his images. Many of Farny's most successful works employ this characteristic composition. Carter writes, "Even when the balance of Farny's compositions is asymmetrical, it is responsible for the quietism and stability of his paintings. This balance expresses both the permanence of the landscape and its dominance over the Indian inhabitants who seem to live in harmony with the landscape." (Henry Farny, p. 28)
In the Badlands exhibits the hallmarks of Farny's highly independent style, revealing the international influences on his approach to painting a wholly national subject. Farny's treatment of the subject of the American Indians won the artist great popularity and acclaim during his lifetime which has continued to grow to this day.