Embracing Cultural Differences

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Joseph Henry Sharp’s In Winter’s Embrace (1905) depicts a snow-covered prairie occupied by a few teepees, horses and indigenous people. It crosses over two different genres: landscape and genre scene. The work appears to be painted on canvas and has a buildup of many layers and brushstrokes. Sharp expresses a typical, daily life of a person living on the prairie due to the accurate depictions, hue and light. With the objects placed in close proximity to the viewer, such as the indigenous people, the teepees and the mountains, the white spectator feels like an insider within an “other” community. Sharp thus intended to make the spectator feel part of their lives, but left it up to the nineteenth-century viewer to empathize with the plight of Native Americans.

In Winter’s Embrace uses many objects central to indigenous lifestyle to dictate the brisk, cold mood of the painting. The image depicts a snowy morning in a prairie, yet mountains set the horizon line toward the top. There are five visible teepees, two indigenous people, and two horses. One teepee is in the foreground and appears to be much larger and easier to see; snow drapes across it. The wild brown and yellow grasses surrounding the teepees are tall and short; hints of green in some of the grasses symbolize that spring is approaching. The title, In Winter’s Embrace, implies that this scene is portrayed in the last stretch of a harsh winter. Each teepee in the foreground is tightly sealed shut and the visible indigenous people are dressed very warmly, which suggests that the winter cold is in its full “embrace.” There are mountains that wrap around and get smaller as they move toward the upper left of the painting and divide the sky from the land in the foreground. The two horses seem to be eating from the grass because their heads are tilted down toward the ground, but it is obvious that Sharp did not want them to be prominent part of the painting because they are in the background. The snow in the foreground utilizes the technique of impasto, a thick buildup of white and light pink paint using many brushstrokes, to give texture to the otherwise flat, two-dimensional depiction.

The hues represented contribute to the image’s harmonious and coherent feel due to their pastel saturation. The green stands out, however, because it does not seem to fit the colors that the rest of the painting portrays within the nature presented. Another hue that stands out is the burnt orange color of the person’s coat in the foreground. Although the color is somewhat reflected in one of the horses, the other person’s coat, and some of the grasses in the back, it has a stark contrast against the light purple, pink and white snow and the light yellow grasses. The whole image has a light pink and light purple saturation, which tells the spectator that the sun is about to rise, and it is a cold, winter morning. The color combination is very harmonious due to the fact that the all of the colors fall under the same hue and saturation categories, light pink and purple. The saturation comes from the way the light shines in on the painting.

The light in this painting sets the atmosphere and color decisions of the image. The light is a rising sun that comes from the left hand side of the image and is about to peak above the mountains. This contributes to the brisk, early morning mood that the painting possesses. Although very few people are up and moving around, I assume that there are more people within the teepees and that once the sun officially rises they will come out and do any work that needs to be done. The light also accounts for the light pink and purple saturation that is apparent throughout the painting. The position of the light thus plays a key role in setting the scene of the image and ultimately helps convey the meaning of In Winter’s Embrace.

Morris fig2The painting makes the spectator feel as if they are a part of the painting because neither the horses nor the indigenous people are directly looking toward the spectator. This avoids the alienation of the spectator and contributes to the inclusiveness and welcoming tone of the painting. Sharp intended to convey a feeling of inclusivity because of his personal connection with indigenous people in the American West. He “was unrivaled in his effort to document the proud heritage and civilization of the people whose culture he knew was destined to ultimately to vanish in the face of the overwhelming western movement of the white man and his machines” (Fenn 2007). Sharp tends to do this with many of his paintings. In Jerry Elkfoot, for example, he depicts a close-up portrait of a Native American woman (figure 2). The realistic facial features as well as the captured expression on her face attest to Sharp having created personal connections with many of his subjects; this, in turned, creates a perceived lack of a barrier between the painting and the spectator.

The spatial organization of the teepees in In Winter’s Embrace contributes to Sharp’s vision of having the spectator become part of the image. All of the teepees are spaced apart from one another; there is one in the foreground that is much larger than the others, and many follow in the background and get smaller the farther away they get from the viewer. The impasto technique that is used in the foreground and not the background for the snow gives texture to where you can truly visualize and almost feel the snow. The space within the painting is organized in terms of how the teepees are placed. All of the other aspects, such as the trees, mountains, indigenous people, horses and grasses are placed around the teepees. Sharp has the teepees as the overall focus because teepees were the ultimate icon of indigenous people in the United States and many times the people depicted to not necessarily live in teepees. Many times, the people depicted living in teepees were simply in encampment (Stereotyping Native America). This attests to W. G. Chamberlain’s propaganda photographs, which were distributed as stereoscards for white middle- or upper-class Americans to view in their homes (figure 3). Ultimately the way the many teepees are presented demonstrates how people in the early 1900s tended to view indigenous Americans.

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Joseph Henry Sharp’s, In Winter’s Embrace is a captivating image. The colors and lighting draw the spectator into the picture from across the room, and the content it expresses makes the spectator feel as if they are a part of the scene, rather than an outsider. Sharp depicts a typical, daily scene within his painting, and wants the spectator to acknowledge this idea and become one with it. His painting does raise a controversial issue, which stems from the fact that in 1905 the canvas would have been intended only for white, upper-class Americans. Sharp’s intentional inclusivity suggests that he intended for white people to see his subjects as he saw them himself—that is, as intriguing and different people who deserved our respect. It is interesting, however, to compare the norms of the 1900s and how this painting was viewed to the norms of the present day and how visitors to the Colby museum might value it. There would be a stark contrast between these two views, due to the social norms and racism that were apparent in the 1900s and its representations, including the marginalization and lack of human rights for indigenous peoples (“Racism, Justice”). Sharp simply depicts what he saw as a “true” representation of Native Americans and hopes that the viewer will be receptive to it.

–Annie Morris

Works cited

Fenn, Forrest. Teepee Smoke. Santa Fe: One Horse Land and Cattle Company, 1983.

Fenn, Forrest. “Teepee Smoke, Part 1: Proud Heritage.” Joseph Henry Sharp. http://www.jhsharp.com/western-art-collector-1.html. October 2007.

“Racism, Justice and the American Indian Racism against Native Americans Forgotten Story of Indian Slavery.” Cleveland Search. http://clevelandsearch.com/Native-Americans.html (accessed April 16, 2014).

“Stereotyping Native America.” UCR/California Museum of Photography. http://www.cmp.ucr.edu/exhibitions/stereotyping/list.htm (April 16, 2014).

“Tea with Olga.” Mountain Walk. http://mountainwalk.org/category/joseph-henry-sharp. July 4, 2012.


Figure 1. Joseph Henry Sharp, In Winter’s Embrace, 1905, oil on canvas, Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, ME.

Figure 2. Joseph Henry Sharp, Jerry Elkfoot, ca. 1930, oil on canvas, Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, ME.

Figure 3. W. G. Chamberlain, Indian Encampment, Middle Park, 1868-1878, albumen prints on stereocard mount, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY.


  1. Grant,

    Thank you so much for you insightful comments about how the compositional analysis as well as the research contributed to the overall discourse I was trying to convey. I am happy I was able to express that relatively clearly to you and pleased that you found such information in my conclusion. In response to your question regarding the light in the image and how it “sets the atmosphere” I would like to point you to how the light is somewhat dull and not coming from a specific source. This contributes to the cold, brisk winter morning that is soon going to turn into a cold, but sunny day. Hopefully that helped clear things up!

  2. Sara,

    I thought it was very interesting how you looked at the image in a completely different way. The way that I interpreted their lack of interaction with the spectator was because they did not see them as a different being and therefore did not want to alienate them by staring. However, I do understand where you are coming from with your ideas and opinions. Based on the research I did, Sharp’s intention for the audience was to truly feel apart of the image and to not feel alienated. He also expresses this with the other images he painted such as Jerry Elkfoot (figure 2).

    I also am curious as to how people of Native American descent feel about this painting. I would love to know if they are more so resentful or appreciative of the way Sharp went about portraying their race and customs. Sharp mostly focused on the Plains Tribes, including the Sioux, the Crow and the Nez Perce. The way he examined and explored the mode of “indigenous lifestyle” was by studying their culture and customs and almost doing ethnographic research to ensure that he truly captured their lifestyle. I hope these answered your questions!

  3. srheilbr says

    I am intrigued by your argument because, as valid as I think your claim is, I feel the exact opposite when viewing the Sharp’s painting. Rather than feeling like an insider to the community, I feel like I am encroaching on an area into which I am not necessarily welcome. I find it both strange and fascinating that we both feel such different levels of welcoming in observing Sharp’s rendering of space. You write that the painting “makes the spectator feel as if they are a part of the painting because neither the horses nor the indigenous people are directly looking toward the spectator.” I feel that this arrangement of subjects actually makes viewers feel more like outsiders than insiders, the subjects pushing them away through their unwillingness to make a front-facing connection with the viewers. (What might be the historical implications of this interpretation?)

    I would be curious to find out how people of Native American descent today feel about Sharp’s painting. It also might be illuminating to find out the specific group of Native Americans Sharp was observing for his painting (for perhaps the group’s customs or general “personality” influenced how Sharp’s chose to portray this scene), as well as to explore the exact mode(s) by which Sharp discovered the so-claimed true “indigenous lifestyle” of these people.

  4. I thought the visual analysis in this essay was very well mapped out. I liked how the first couple paragraphs involving the color and the lighting focused on how it set a brisk, early morning mood and how it gave the painting a harmonious feel. My only question is in the paragraph about light you state that the light “sets the atmosphere” but I never really understood what the actual atmosphere of the painting was, besides what you had stated earlier. I also really liked the conclusion, as it brought forth a new argument involving white supremacy and how that impacted how one might view this painting. I also really enjoyed the integration of your images, they flowed very well in the essay.

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