Artist Michael Scott thinks Henry Farny was one fine painter but suggests in the subtext to his own exuberant narrative works in Michael Scott: Farny Fables, now at the Taft Museum, that the European-born, Cincinnati-based artist could have better spent his talents on larger issues.
You have very little time to check this out as A Western View: Five Paintings by Henry Farny will continue on view in the Taft's Keyhole Gallery only through Dec. 10 (Farny Fables runs to Dec. 31). A Western View is certainly worth seeing, particularly with Scott's ideas in mind.
Four of the five paintings are exactly what we expect from Farny, the fifth is something of a surprise. In all of them the artist creates stunning views of the American West, showing its human inhabitants as one element in a balanced nature. Perhaps the handsomest of these works is "In the Valley of the Shadows" (1895), in which a curving line of Native American nomads moves through a landscape of blue-white snow, the front figures daringly cut off at waist so they stride toward us and accent the painting's marvelous sense of depth.
The top quarter of the work is a tour de force of sky set off by a line of brilliant light running left to right, outlining two dissimilarly sized hilltops and exploding into a bright stretch of hillside at far right, shaped in a fashion that actual light would not have illuminated. Very good, indeed.
The unusual work in this Farny assemblage is "As It Was In The Beginning" (1908), an atypically large and dark canvas that is in fact a history painting. Two Europeans in 17th-century dress are traveling by canoe through woods that can only be described as deep and dark; their canoe is paddled by someone who can only be described as a noble savage. What this painting has in common with the others is the undeniable whiff of Neverland. Everything is quite beautiful, but perhaps not quite truthful.
Beauty should not be disparaged, although it has had a rough time of it in recent years.
On the evidence of these paintings alone, Farny had great skills. He was caught in, it seems, a myth of times past. When he was painting these works for his increasingly appreciative audience the lifestyle he romanticized was actually almost gone. Most Native Americans lived on reservations. These are wonderful paintings, but like Michael Scott, one can't help but wonder what Farny might have done if he had turned his talents to less fictionalized work.
In addition to four oil paintings, A Western View includes a small gouche (opaque watercolor) on paper, "Heading for Home," which portrays two horsemen in the snow, a golden light behind them. The piece has a particular relation to one of the works in the Michael Scott show.
All the paintings in A Western View are on loan from area private collections and together they span much of the artist's working life, from the early 1880s to the second decade of the 20th century. Grade: B+