The genesis of the Taos Art Colony began with Joseph Henry Sharp, who first visited Taos in 1893. He publicized the town’s qualities in illustrations contributed to popular magazines and by encouraging fellow artists to visit Taos.1 Like most other painters associated with the Taos Society of Artists active between 1915 and 1927, Sharp embraced the academic tradition, studying periodically between 1881 and 1898 with trained artists or in academies located in America or Europe. The application of his rigorously developed skills to the subject of Native American culture formed the basis of his artistic career.
Sharp was fortunate to find several patrons around 1902 who routinely purchased the Native American portraits he painted at the turn of the century, among whom were Phoebe Hearst in California and Joseph G. Butler, Jr. in Ohio. Sharp’s Native American heads, which had also been purchased by the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution in 1902, were frequently identified as historical documents, but Sharp clearly intended to be known not just as an historian, but as an artist.
Undoubtedly created to establish Sharp’s artistic credentials, the elements of Ration Day at the Reservation are drawn from a variety of sources. The plastered building with a blue-frame door is reminiscent of the architecture of Sharp’s own home in Taos, which he purchased in 1908, including the buffalo skull, which hung over a door in the building he used as a studio. The Native Americans, not specific to any one tribe, are wrapped in commercial blankets, frequently of government issue. From yet another source, Plains beadwork is evident in several pairs of moccasins and on the leather dress worn by the seated woman to the left.
When Butler purchased Ration Day at the Reservation in 1919, he commented on the painting’s subject, “It is a composition showing the Indians applying for rations at the Government Agency.” The painting relies on Sharp’s familiarity with the federal bureaucracy at the Crow Agency, where he lived largely among United States government employees, including his close friend, the Crow agent from 1902 to 1910, Samuel Reynolds. The relationship between the federal government and Native Americans was a troubled one in Sharp’s eyes. He explicitly protested government interference in tribal life when he wrote the Department of the Interior in 1902, asking them not to enforce a new rule requiring the men to wear short hair.
Ration Day at the Reservation suggests the encroachment of not just the federal government but of Euro-American values, which, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and boarding schools such as those found at the Crow Agency, worked to turn tribes from a life based on hunting to one based on agriculture. The transition was rarely successful and led to tribal dependency on the government for food and housing. The stooped figures, dark tones, and generally somber mood of the painting indicate that Sharp felt that ration day on the reservation marked a dark moment in Native American survival. The presence of the broken buffalo skull over the door further emphasizes the sense of loss, since artists routinely used the buffalo skull to suggest the destruction of the Indian’s way of life. Sharp had on other occasions, in such paintings as The Mourners (1911, Thomas Gilerease Institute of American History and Art, Tulsa) and Young Chiefs Mission (1919, The Butler Institute of American Art), chosen a frieze-like format in which figures are shown in a shallow space in front of a vertical backdrop to stage sorrowful or somber subjects, as he does in Ration Day at the Reservation.