Henry Francois Farny (1847 – 1916)

Henry Francois Farny Museum Collections


Henry Farny (1847-1916) Indian Chief, Graphite and Colored Pencil, 6" x 4"

Henry Farny (1847-1916) Indian Chief, Graphite and Colored Pencil, 6″ x 4″

Henry Farny was born in Alsace, France, the son of a political refugee who to emigrated to Pennsylvania when Henry was six years old. As a child, he enjoyed a friendly relationship with a nearby band of Senecas, which began his life-long fascination with Native Americans.

In 1859 Farny’s family moved to Cincinnati where he later took his first job as an apprentice lithographer. By the time he was eighteen, Harper’s Weekly has published a two-page view of Cincinnati that Farny had drawn. After briefly working for Harper’s in New York, Farny decided he needed more advanced art training. In 1867 he traveled to the Royal Academy in Dusseldorf, Germany where he spent three years studying under Herman Hartzog and Thomas Read, and painting beside John Twachtman and Frank Duveneck.

Returning to Cincinnati in 1870, Farny resumed his illustration career working for local publishers as well as Harper’s Weekly and Century magazines. Other illustration commissions ranged from such projects as circus posters to McGuffy’s Eclectic Readers, the most widely used grade school texts of the 19th century.

In 1881 Farny learned that the great Lakota leader, Sitting Bull, had turned himself over to the US military and was being held at the Standing Rock Agency. Hoping to meet Sitting Bull and learn more about the Ghost Dance movement, Farny journeyed up the Missouri River to North Dakota, but arrived after Sitting Bull had been moved to Fort Randall. Nevertheless, Farny was enchanted with what he did find, and used the opportunity to make sketches and collect artifacts for use in his studio paintings back in Cincinnati. From this time on, he devoted much of his time to recording scenes of Plains Indian life.

Farny made his next Western trip in 1883 to illustrate a Century magazine article about the completion Northern Pacific Railroad’s transcontinental line. Part of the celebration included ceremonies at the new territorial capital at Bismarck where he finally met Sitting Bull who delivered an address through an interpreter. Continuing west on the railroad with a group of dignitaries including Ulysses S.Grant, Farny sketched views of the Crow Reservation at Grey Cliff, Montana Territory which also became illustrations for Century.

Subsequent Western projects included views of a trip down the Missouri River from Helena, Montana to Fort Benton, and portraits of Zuni leaders for articles about the Pueblo by the famed anthropologist, Frank Cushing, both for Century magazine. Although Farny drew the Zuni portraits in Washington, D.C. when his subjects were visiting the Smithsonian Institution, he did travel to Fort Sill, Oklahoma Territory in 1894 at the invitation of General Nelson Miles to paint the Apaches being interned there. Among his most famous works from this trip is a watercolor sketch of Geronimo, signed by the famous chief.

After about 1890, Farny discontinued most illustration work in favor of easel paintings depicting the Plains Indians that he had met, lived with, and studied in the previous decade. Considering his training, it is no surprise that his work falls solidly within the romantic realist tradition of the late 19th century. His paintings-most commonly in gouache and transparent watercolor-are highly detailed representations of Native life free of negative effects of reservation living. Although his images are idealized in this way, they are not overtly romanticized or dramatized like those of most other “Indian Painters” of his and subsequent generations. His light is usually the strong, even light of day, not the exaggerated chiaroscuro effects of firelight and shadow. His poses are candid, not the result of stagecraft. Farny’s goal was to preserve the details of a way of life he saw disappearing before his eyes.