14 Sep 2015

Testimonies of a Vanished America

Who is able to depict landscapes and protagonists, subjects and objects, and capture their essence better than Fine Artists? Where the writer needs to pick and choose the words in order to describe his vision, he then needs to skillfully and painstakingly apply his magic (art and methodology) to give life and body to them by stringing them together in such a way that they relay a description of the seen, and an ambience, an emotion of the unseen, of the perceived, of the meant-to-be, of the quite-not-so. Done in such a way that they imbue us readers and guide us towards our own interpretation.


There is a vote of trust and confidence going on, as the writer trustfully relays his finished piece to us readers. Now we come into play to make the book happen, come to life beyond its words laid out flatly on the physical page. The writer has handed us the script and the tools (his art form) and our role is to use them to visualise the story, the unfolding plot, the theme, the dialogues, with our mind's eye. However there is a risk for the process of going into disarray, getting lost in translation, missing a point, overlooking some not-so-anodyne punctuation mark. The reader transcribes, interprets and represents the unfolding text into visual imagery. We mentally paint the canvasses and tapestries of the book thanks to the tools provided by the writer to guide our imagination.

Our relation with the painter is different. Acute observer like the wordsmith, he is for his part the writer of the visual, skillfully using a palette of colours, shapes, shades and textures that depict contents and form. The visual artist visually sets the scene literally in our faces, yet with all the underlying nuances, subtleties, assumptions and suggestions that are dear to the writer. Yet there is no beating about the bush: the painter gets us on track sooner! The 500-page novel is condensed into the one painting, laid before us to physically see. The painting seizes the moment,without abstracting it from the peace or drama of the past and the (un)foreboding future. The moment is captured in its fleetingness, and frozen for posterity.

In this particular instance, French-born American artist Henry François Farny captured more easily than words could, the waning of an era, that of the Native Americans, now forced to surrender their freedom to the precepts of the newly-created Land of the Free in all its flaws and contradictions. Farny's paintings translate this imminence with composure, restraint and dignity, and with all due respect from an artist who was fascinated by the First Nations and their incommensurable wisdom, knowledge and symbiosis with the natural world. Before our very eyes is a piece of anthology immortalised by paint and brushes, that of a self-sufficient, fiercely independent, proud, wise, free, spirited and autonomous civilisation on the brink of its forced demise and surrender to a model that is anything but redeemable.

Sources: (1) 'Rookwood and the American Indian, Masterpieces of Art Pottery from the James J. Gardner Collection' exhibition catalogue, featuring essays by Anita J. Ellis and Susan Labry Meyn, published by Ohio University Press, 2007, and available to purchase directly from the publisher. I sourced the cover photography for this article from Google Books. The exhibition catalogue details Native American-focused art within the Ohio artist community and references local artists such as Henry Farny, as well as featuring pottery pieces by Cincinnati-based The Rookwood Pottery Company.


(2) Gouache on paper (1895) by French-born American painter Henry François Farny (1847-1916). The painting was auctioned off by Aspire Auctions in their September 2015 Online Auction. Estimate $100,000/ $200,000. Sold $138,000.00 on 3rd September 2015. The full details below originate from the Aspire Auctions website:

14 ⅞" x 8 ⅞" paper size. Gouache over pencil on paper, signed and dated 1895 lower right, framed under plexiglass, overall 19" x 13⅛". This has never been offered for sale before. Depicting a Native American Crow Indian warrior, as indicated by the two eagle feathers, scouting with shotgun to his side, his beaded-hide pipe sack tucked in his belt. In the background is a second warrior on horseback with additional horse and distant camp below the hills.

"The West to which Farny traveled in 1881 was already becoming a nostalgic subject for Americans. The frontier officially ceased to exist in 1890; a transcontinental railroad had been completed in 1869 and most of the Indians had been confined to their reservations during the 1870s. While a few indians, such as Sitting Bull and Geronimo, continued to fight white settlers with small bands of warriors, the majority of the Indians lived peacefully and dispiritedly on their reservations. The buffalo had already passed into legend by the time of Farny's visit... "Although he repeatedly used his studio artifacts in several paintings, Farny's depiction of the Indian was historically quite accurate. Many of the Indian objects in his painting can be identified by tribe. Farny sometimes dressed his models in a style of the 1860s or 1870s, and the artist often portrayed his Indians in a mixture of Indian-made clothing, trade goods, and white man's gear, as would have been accurate for his period. Generally, his Indians carry rifles, and the new repeating rifles at that, rather than the more romantic bow and arrow of legend, and they usually ride in the white man's bridle and saddle and are rarely seen bareback using a thong." - Denny Carter, author of 'Henry Farny'.

Condition: Foxing in sky, painted white border flaked at the edges not intruding into painting. Small undulation in paper as shown in detailed image. Tipped at the upper corners to backing mat. Small soils visible in upper corners from previous framing material.


(3) Gouache on paper (1911) by French-born American painter Henry François Farny (1847-1916). The painting was auctioned off by Aspire Auctions in their September 2015 Online Auction. Estimate $100,000/ $200,000. Still for sale to date (reserve has not been met). The full details below originate from the Aspire Auctions website:

6¼" x 4¾" paper size Gouache over pencil on paper, signed and dated 1911 lower right, framed under glass, overall 11¾" x 10⅛". Prov: By descent through the family, Cincinnati OH, until now.

"By the time Henry Farny made his first trip west in 1881, the Indian peoples of the entire Great Plains region, from Texas into Canada, were already greatly impoverished, culturally as well as economically. These Native Americans had endured nearly a century of pernicious federal policy and more than forty years of punishing war with the U.S. military. The government's objective was to either civilize or exterminate these proud and brave warriors.... the Indian story that Farny usually chose to tell reflected the lifeways of these Indians during the glorious earlier days of traditional Plains life, when they had charged across the grasslands hunting buffalo prior to their confinement on remote reservations.... Throughout his life Farny knew about and was sympathetic to the Indian's cause, yet his art rarely reflected their tragic situation. Because of the discrepancy between what he knew and what he chose to portray, Farny's paintings and drawings of Indians are fascinating from an ethnological viewpoint." - Susan Labry Meyn, author of 'Henry Farny Paints the Far West'.

Condition: Painted white border flaked at the edges not intruding into painting. Verso paper toned with old tape residue from non-archival framing.

'The Coming of the Fire Horse' (1910)
'New Territory' (1893)
'Camp in the Foothills' (1895)

Other artworks by Henry F. Farny include (4) 'The Coming of the Fire Horse', oil on canvas (1910), and (5) 'New Territory', gouache on paper (1893), both via The Athenaeum - which references no less than 81 paintings by Farny. (6) 'Camp in the Foothils', gouache on paper (1895), via Fine Western & American Art Auction House The Coeur d'Alene Art Auction.

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