Joseph Henry Sharp

In 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt gave an unusual order to the Board of Indian Commissioners: build an artist’s studio and cabin on the site of the Little Bighorn battle. His purpose? To accommodate the painter Joseph Henry Sharp.

At the turn of the century, there were any number of artists who could have been commissioned to record Montana’s indigenous population. However, Roosevelt chose the artist most likely to succeed in such delicate work. Joseph H. Sharp (1859-1953) had a sterling reputation for recording Native Americans’ cultures accurately. Furthermore, where other would-be portraitists were rejected by indigenous populations, Sharp enjoyed considerable access.

Critics and historians theorize that Sharp’s deafness - the result of a childhood injury - contributed to the artist’s acceptability. Sharp had a “gentle presence.” He worked silently and respectfully, humbled by the enormity of his task and spurred on by his belief, “If I do not paint them, no one ever will.”

Sharp was born in Ohio, and studied art in Cincinnati, Paris, and Munich, before finding his ultimate inspiration in Taos. From 1893 onward, Sharp extolled the charms of New Mexico to his fellow artists and set an example by establishing a permanent Taos studio in 1909. By 1912, enough artists had followed suit for the group to charter the now-famous Taos Society of Artists.