REH and The Stoic

In a lengthy letter to H.P. Lovecraft, ca. July 1935, Howard recounts a trip he took with Truett Vinson to several locales in New Mexico, including Santa Fe. While there, they visited an art museum were Howard was quite taken with one painting in particular:

We went through the art museum which is supposed to be very good, but I shall not pretend to try to pass on it. I know nothing about paintings, and, unless the painting portrays some sort of strenuous action, I care less. Most of the paintings were of New Mexican landscape, and I find the Witt Museum in San Antonio less monotonous, because Texas presents a greater variety of scenery than does New Mexico, and therefore a collection of Texas landscape paintings offers more different scenes. Only one painting stands out in my mind, and I studied that for a long time. It was a large painting of a half-naked Indian trudging over a desert country, leaning on a staff, and dragging behind him several horses’ heads, with portions of the vertebrae still attached; he was dragging them by means of raw-hide ropes fastened in deep gashes in the muscles of his back. At first glance I supposed it to portray a Penitente, but a description was affixed to the painting. It portrayed a scene the artist had witnessed in Montana, many years before. An old Crow chief had word that his favorite son had died in Carlisle University; he killed the boy’s horses, cut off their heads, gashed his back and fastened rawhide thongs into the raw flesh, and dragged those skulls all over the mountains all day long, to show that neither grief nor physical agony could shake his fortitude. Doubtless it did more to lessen his sorrow than anything he could have done. I was reminded of Chesterton’s lines, about the old Viking:

“And a man hopes, being foolish,
      Till in white woods apart
He finds at last the lost bird dead,
But a man can still hold up his head,
      Though nevermore his heart.”

When the world cracks under a man’s feet and the sky breaks and falls on his head, if he can clench his jaws and keep on his feet, and keep his head up, if for no other reason than the stubborn pride of fighting, then that’s something, at least; and if he can’t do that, he’d better blow his brains out, like a gentleman. The title of the picture was The Stoic.

As Howard states, the painting depicts a Crow Indian scene that the painter, J. H. Sharp, came upon in Montana. He said he saw an old warrior who had lashed one end of buffalo-hide strips into the flesh on his back and on the other end of the strips he had affixed the heads of his favorite ponies and then dragged them until he dropped to prove that he was a brave man and had the courage and fortitude to face any trouble. The federal government frowned upon such rituals and outlawed them in 1904. From a 21st century perspective, The Stoic explores the 19th century belief that Native Americans personified the concept of the “Noble Savage.” This view held that Native Americans embodied innocence, moral courage, and a life in balance with nature. The Stoic was painted in 1914 and donated by Sharp to the New Mexico Museum of Art in 1917, shortly after it opened. The painting measures 52 1/2 x 61 1/2 in and is oil on canvas. While the museum was built in 1917, the structure is based the on the design of 300 year-old mission churches at Acoma and other pueblos.

The painter, Joseph Henry Sharp, was born in Bridgeport, Ohio on September 27, 1859 to Irish parents. His father was a local merchant. From his earliest days, Sharp was fascinated by anything he could learn about the American Indians. He had no real interest in school — the young Sharp was more interested in drawing, fishing and swimming, the latter of which almost killed him — he nearly drowned in a local river. Sharp was pulled out of the water by friends, who thought he had died. However, after being carried home he was resuscitated by a determined mother. Unfortunately, Sharp suffered a permanent disability from his accident. His hearing was damaged and would continue to deteriorate rapidly, eventually leaving him completely deaf. At an early age, Sharp’s indomitable spirit was already manifesting itself, as he never for a moment let his handicap hold him back. He learned to read lips and began to carry a pad and pencil with him wherever he went, never once losing his optimistic outlook on life. It was around this time that he began to realize that he had a natural facility for drawing, and he sketched often in the outdoors.

At the age of 12, Sharp’s father died, leaving the family nearly penniless. Even though he was still in school, Sharp went to work in a nail mill and copper shop, giving his earnings to his mother. When he turned 14, his continued hearing loss rendered school impossible, so he quit school entirely and moved to Cincinnati, where he lived with his aunt. Once relocated, he worked and supported himself entirely, still sent money to his mother, and managed to have enough to enroll in art classes at Mickmicken University in Cincinnati.

During the late 19th century, studying in Europe was still considered mandatory for any aspiring artist, and after 8 years of working, and studying when he could, Sharp had saved enough extra money to travel to Europe, and spent two years at the Antwerp Academy studying in the realist tradition, historical painting and portraiture.

In 1883 Sharp made the first of his journeys to the American West, visiting the states of New Mexico, Arizona, California and Wyoming, where he began sketching members of American Indian tribes. He returned to Europe in 1885 with John Hauser, another Cincinnati artist, who studied with him at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. The aspiring artist also studied at the Academie Julian in Paris, and with Frank Duveneck in Italy.

Back in Cincinnati, Sharp married Addie Byram in 1892, and visited Taos for the first time in 1893 on a commission from Harper’s Weekly. He was instantly captivated by the unspoilt life of the American Indians in Taos. The pictures he completed for the commission were well received back east, and led to further illustration work with numerous publications. In spite of this success, Sharp still felt that he had much left to learn, so returned to Paris for two years of further study.

When he returned to the U.S., Sharp did not go back to the pueblos of New Mexico right away. He taught in Cincinnati, worked as an illustrator, and spent time in Montana, camping on the battlefield of Little Big Horn and becoming acquainted with and painting portraits of the Plains Indians. In 1900, an exhibition of these portraits traveled to Paris and to Washington D.C., and would prove to be a turning point in his career. The Smithsonian Institution purchased 11 portraits, and President Theodore Roosevelt took an interest in Sharp’s work.

In 1901, the United States government commissioned him to create an art studio to serve as an attraction at the Little Big Horn Battlefield in Montana. Sharp carefully painted portraits of 200 Native Americans, who had battled General George Armstrong Custer. The artist was invited to do fifteen more works each year for a period of five years.

In 1905, the Sharps were spending a lot of time on the Crow Agency in Montana, so they decided to build a cabin with the help of local prison labor, arranged for and mostly supervised by Samuel Reynolds, the U.S. Indian Commission agent of the Crow Agency, Montana. Sharp named the one room cabin “Absarokee Hut.” The structure also featured a lean-to containing a bedroom and kitchen. In an unusual arrangement, the artist and his wife lived and worked there rent-free and they were allowed to buy the cabin in 1922.

Sharp spent most summers in Taos, and in 1909 he purchased a former Penitente chapel there for use as a studio. The Sharps finally made a permanent move to Taos in 1912, where Addie died in 1913. Responding to the new landscape and light of New Mexico, Sharp began to change some of his techniques. Although he had trained as an academic painter and usually worked in his studio, he adopted plein air painting for the first time. In 1915, Sharp became one of the six founding members of the Taos Society of Artists, of which he was the most senior and experienced. They worked as a sales cooperative to develop Taos internationally as a recognized artistic community. The Society continued until 1927. When asked why he painted Indians, Sharp replied:

I was always interested even as a small boy. I guess it was Fenimore Cooper who first attracted me to the Indian. It was a romance of youth, of boyhood I suppose. Then when I came to know them I liked them for themselves. Perhaps they attracted me as subjects because of their important historical value as the first Americans.

Europe was soon embroiled in World War I, but not in sleepy Taos, where the war was a world away, rendered a matter of newspaper reports and involved discussions. The colony artists were preoccupied not with the thunder of artillery and bloody hand-to-hand combat, but with the activities painting and attending meetings of the recently established Taos Society of Artists.

By October 24, 1929, Black Thursday, the day the stock market crashed, Sharp was having much success as a painter. His works caught the eye of John D. Rockefeller, who purchased a number of paintings from him. But as the Depression began, panic spread across the land and thousands of people flooded the streets, desperate to withdraw their monies as one bank after another collapsed. Taos was no different, as people gathered whatever holdings they possessed and secreted them protectively in their homes. Of course, the art community suffered financially as well.

Beginning in 1930, Sharp vacationed for a number of winters in Hawaii together with his second wife, Louise. Since these trips were vacations, Sharp painted only for pleasure while in Hawaii. However, a local gallery owner did convince the artist to show some of his work. The Sharps wintered in Hawaii for the next eight years, except for 1931 and 1933. Those years the winters were spent in Mexico and the Orient, respectively.

Sales were generally slow for Sharp during the World War II and it became more difficult for him to paint because he could no longer see clearly the faces of the models; he solved this problem by painting larger figures on larger canvases. Around this time, someone asked what sounds his loss of hearing deprived him of the most, Sharp replied: “the beat of the drum and the whoop of the dance.”

At the age of 93, Sharp closed his studio in Taos to travel to his winter home Pasadena, California. He intended to return to Taos the following year, but fell ill and died in California on August 29, 1953. Over the span of his career, Sharp had produced some 10,500 works of art, including oil paintings, etchings, monotypes, pastels, and watercolors. Of this number, 7,800 are of Native American subjects, including 3,200 portraits. Sharp was a true historian of the West, as well as a painter, preserving a record of a way of life that was changing. At Sharp’s memorial service in Taos, fellow art colony founder Ernest Blumenschein described him as ”the reporter, the recorder of the absolute integrity of the American Indian … he will go down in history with Russell and Remington and the few early artists of Indian life.”

Circling back to the last paragraph of the above excerpt from Howard’s letter to HPL, no doubt the world was cracking under Howard’s feet and the broken sky was falling on his head in June of 1936. Unfortunately, he heeded the more negative advice presented by his words, and took the “gentlemanly” way out rather than being like the subject of The Stoic, clenching his jaws, keeping his head up, carrying his pain and enduring the death of his mother.