Obsessed with the West

What lies behind the long-lived local passion for American Indian art?

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True story: A man who lives well within the boundaries of this magazine’s core readership was in Santa Fe, New Mexico—one of the country’s leading art markets—viewing works at the well-regarded Fenn- Nedra Matteucci Gallery, when he happened to ask the sales rep assisting him: “Do you have any Farnys?”

The rep responded quickly, “You must be from Cincinnati!”

Our reputation precedes us. We love Indian art.

The Cincinnati Art Museum has more than two dozen examples on display, not only pieces by Joseph Henry Sharp and Henry Farny of the early 20th century Cincinnati School, but works by Charles Russell, Frederick Remington, and other notables as well. The Taft Museum’s Song of the Talking Wire, by Farny, is one of its most celebrated works. Walk into the Queen City Club or the University Club, and paintings of Indians are among the very first things you see.

Paintings of American Indians adorn many an “old Cincinnati” interior; they have been handed down through the generations and are among the families’ cherished possessions. University of Cincinnati immunologist and Ph.D. Cora Ogle, who grew up on a street above the California Nature Preserve, remembers walking down the family home’s spiral staircase on her wedding day, with six images of the Native American West providing the backdrop. Her father loved them.

Auctioneer Wes Cowan, who has sold countless paintings and artifacts of the American West, notes that their popularity has barely waned. “They are popular for the same reasons today as they were at the turn of the [20th] century,” he says. They are romantic symbols of the frontier. “They are viewed as an exotic culture, and their appeal today is much like that of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, formed just after the frontier closed, in the late 1800s.”

Gallery owners all attest to a thriving local market for Indian art. As I was visiting their showrooms in the late winter, Mary Ran, in East Hyde Park, was displaying a large portrait of an American Indian brave by Bessie Hoover Wessel, another respected Cincinnati artist of the first half of the 20th century. At a price of $9,500, it sported a prominent red “sold” sticker. Selling these pieces, said Ran, is “very easy. People doing a spiritual thing today go back to the Indians…who had the same kind of spirituality.”

At the Eisele Gallery in Fairfax, director Margaret Klein showed me a small portrait of a chief by Sharp, then took me downstairs, to see paintings in the gallery’s new contemporary space—contemporary in this case meaning “traditional” subjects painted by current artists—where several large oils of Indians by Maysville artist Steve White and Milford painter Jacob Pfeiffer were hanging. The works of both artists are quite popular, according to Klein, even with prices as high as $18,000. “I think it’s the image of a people who were able to survive in the wild, on their own,” Klein speculated. “Think about it. No government was holding them up or telling them what to do. That has a certain appeal today.”

I asked a friend, an artist who does not paint Indian scenes, what might be going on. What might lie behind the long-lived local passion for creating and collecting romanticized visions of the American West?

He shook his head. “Go figure,” he said.

 

It was in this context that I began to see the wisdom of the project that had started me down this road a few weeks prior. In the early part of the year, two retired UC professors of German, longtime friends and colleagues Edward Paxton (E.P.) Harris and Jerry Glenn, went public with their labor-of-love quest to resurrect the reputation of yet another Cincinnati artist whose most famous paintings are of Native Americans: John Hauser.

Their book, Straight White Shield—A Life and Works of John Hauser (1859-1913), was published in February. Offering the first comprehensive biography of the painter, and a critical essay by practicing artist Richard Luschek, it also includes a catalogue raisonne of approximately 500 paintings. The two professors persuaded Randy Sandler, owner of Cincinnati Art Galleries, to stage a major exhibition of Hauser’s art, drawing hundreds of people to its Friday night opening and scores more to remarks by Harris the following afternoon.

Hauser, who was born in 1859 and died in 1913, lived in Clifton in a Spanish mission-style house that he had built and that still stands on Morrison Avenue. (That’s him in an undated photo taken in his home studio.) He spent many of his early years studying art abroad, and much of each of his later years traveling in Arizona, Wyoming, and Montana, where he painted Native American portraits and genre scenes, most of them on relatively small canvases. A contemporary of Farny and Sharp, he greatly admired their technique (he and Sharp were friends), but he was not, by almost all accounts, as good a painter. Fewer of his works hang in museums. When sold, they command only a fraction of the prices of his better-known peers. Even people who own them—and there are many in Cincinnati and environs who do—don’t always profess passion for their Hausers.

“No, I don’t love it—I like it,” one owner told me as I roamed the display at Sandler’s.

“I don’t love it, but I respect it. It’s beautifully done,” said another.

Harris and Glenn believe with some conviction that Hauser deserves more respect. As Harris explained that Saturday afternoon: “The plaque on one of these paintings suggests that Hauser lived from 1859 to 1918. Whoever put it on there didn’t even know the correct years of his life. It was done during a period when Hauser had no identity. The same has been true for his standing in art history and the reception of his work. But Jerry and I feel differently. We feel he’s very good and capable of an occasional masterpiece, and these ought not be stuck away.”

As Harris spoke to the audience at Cincinnati Art Galleries, he stood in front of an unusually large Hauser canvas from 1910, entitled The Advance of Civilization. Dramatically depicting a farmer with a wooden plow pulled by two horses, it shows him stopped by a chief in full regalia with arm upraised. Behind the chief, on horseback or by their teepees, members of the tribe stand tentatively. A buffalo skull in the lower right signals the message: their way of life is disappearing. It’s a powerful picture; it’s also a picture that is not often seen. It belongs to the Cincinnati Art Museum (part of its Cincinnati Public Schools collection), but is not on permanent display.

“The Indians here are packed and ready to go,” Harris said. “But where to? Where in the world can they go? I say that with a tear in my eye and a quiver in my voice. This painting was in the Washburn School, but no one has thought it worth paying attention to. It ought to be shown. That, in a word, is what our book is about.”

 

It is also what the entire John Hauser Project (johnhauserproject.com) is about. Harris first developed interest in Hauser nearly 42 years ago, when he and his wife Marilyn (of cooking class fame) bought a barrel-tiled-roof house in Clifton and discovered its provenance. In a nod to the artist, the Harrises named their cat John Mauser, and on a random recommendation, took him to a vet in Monfort Heights who turned out to be a grand-nephew of Hauser’s wife. One thing led to another, with relationships forming and interest stirring, but as long as Harris was working at UC, nothing tangible came of it.

After his retirement in 1999, and Jerry Glenn’s in 2003, Glenn asked Harris to write about Hauser for a series of booklets he was doing on German-American studies. Together, they produced a 30-page volume, in hard copy and online. They invited people familiar with the artist and interested in learning more to contact them. The response was substantial, and out of that, the John Hauser Project took shape.

“We worked very intensely for the last five years,” Harris said, “and full-time during the past two, when we were laying out the book.” Partly because Hauser and his wife, Minnie, had no children, information about the artist is scarce. A group of photos of his studio on Morrison Avenue—now the Harrises’ living room—reveal a workspace rich in Native American paraphernalia, but not in letters and journals. The story of Hauser’s life was pieced together from early art histories, Cincinnati Art Club records, newspaper clips, and the occasional reminiscence that found its way to a page somewhere. Also helpful were records from a 1986 exhibition (John Hauser’s West) held at the Indian Hill Historical Society.

“When you try to write about art, it helps if you have some examples,” said Harris. “We went to museums. People surfaced. The Internet helped with auction sites. Some Hauser paintings were listed in the Smithsonian Institute’s inventories of American artists. When we published our booklet four years ago, and gave it away free—that opened things up.”

Ultimately, they printed 500 of the books and experienced brisk sales as the project went public. “This book is long overdue,” said Cincinnati gallerist Phyllis Weston in an adulatory preface. “You will hear that from every person who reads it or has studied the work of John Hauser.” Weston added that she has probably sold more Hausers than anyone in the world, “and I have done so with pride.”

She has also made the most of a relatively limited market. Because Hauser died when he was 54, his time in front of an easel was cut short. How many canvases exist beyond the 500 illustrated in Straight White Shield is unknown, but no one is betting on big numbers. Sharp, by contrast, lived to be 92 and is credited with over 10,500 works.

Sandler’s exhibition, the largest of its kind ever mounted, lured about 80 paintings, most on loan from individual owners, with a few offered for sale. Most were oils, many were solitary portraits; some depicted pueblo life, or hunting and canoeing scenes. “He took a lot of photos; he painted many versions of the same Indian,” Bari Sandler (Randy’s daughter) explained. “We are hoping Hauser becomes more nationally known. Sharp and Farny are a higher tier—the great ones cost hundreds of thousands, and even a small Farny watercolor of an Indian would bring $200,000. Most people can’t afford them.”

While prices for Hausers vary by size and subject matter—Indian themes are by far the most desired—many (most of them small) sell in a range of $6,000 to $12,000. Two exceptions at Sandler’s exhibition: a compact but expressive oil of Chief Painted Horse, with no background but sharply detailed clothing, was selling for $22,500. The much larger Rush to the Omaha Dance, an oil featuring 20 braves on horseback galloping across the plains, was tagged at $60,000. Most of those that Sandler sold were at friendlier prices; one was about $35,000.

E.P. Harris finds the price differential between Hauser and his more esteemed contemporaries frustrating. “In our research, we found both bad and good Hausers. The good ones are as good as any others of the era. Yet a good Hauser sells for about 3 percent of what a good Farny or Sharp may sell for. Surely he deserves better than that.” (The implied math: Hauser at $36,000; Farny at $1,000,000.)

Wes Cowan sees it differently. “No Hauser painting will ever sell for $100,000. We sold two Farnys for a million-plus, but important paintings like that don’t turn up very often,” he says. “The Cincinnati artists all saw that Farny had achieved some prominence in his lifetime. They wanted to imitate him…but they weren’t as good.”

 

To hear a scholar’s assessment, I walked through gallery 122 at the Cincinnati Art Museum with Julie Aronson, the curator of American painting. It is a beautiful room, full of large and small canvases, a darkly handsome Rookwood vase entitled “Lone Elk, Sioux,” two western bronzes, and a pair of beaded moccasins. The colors of the West—tans, greens, and blue sky—predominate. Aronson pointed to a Farny. “He has a light touch,” she said. “There’s finesse to the way he paints; it’s very distinctive. The figures are convincing—they could move. There’s a lot of direct observation…you see the air coming out of the horse’s nostrils. He is careful with detail. The color is subtle.” We looked at Farny’s The Unwelcome Guests. “Look at the way he paints the sky,” Aronson said. “You just don’t see in Hauser those beautiful passages of painting.”

Two small Hausers hanging nearby, Successful Hunt and Plains Indians Hunting in Winter Landscape were flatter and less detailed. “He’s imitative,” Aronson said. “There are incidents where he lifted entire figures and passages from Farny. Sometimes his figures are stiff. Sometimes they’re out of proportion”—e.g., man to horse. We walked to the famous The Harvest Dance by Sharp. “Sharp is at his best in a work like this,” Aronson said. “One feels more of a French influence. He paints more broadly than Farny, and the detail is less particular, but he has come up with his own version of this scene taken from real life. The difference is not lack of training. Hauser had plenty of training. Sometimes it comes down to innate ability.”

No one I talked with, and certainly not Aronson, felt the John Hauser Project was misbegotten. Doug Eisele, proprietor of the Eisele Gallery, seemed to speak for all when he told me, “We love this sort of thing. It creates interest at all levels—among those who have and those who don’t have. It may bring more good pieces to market. Anytime you get a shake-up, it creates interest.”

It has done that. Hauser owners citywide are newly alert to their treasures. The Cincinnati Galleries show made a splash—and some sales. E.P. Harris and Jerry Glenn, formerly retired academics, are micro-celebrities, now with book signings and an appearance at Joseph-Beth to their credit. Cora Ogle is thinking again about her wedding day—yes, all six of those Indian paintings were Hausers.

In this spirit of new discovery, I ventured to Dayton to take a look at the Art Institute’s impressive American collection. I saw much that was memorable, much that was imaginative and even cutting-edge. But I don’t think there was an Indian anywhere. Go figure.

 

Photograph courtesy E.P. Harris
Originally published in the July 2012 issue.

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