Sharp started experimenting with this type of composition following his first trip to Taos in 1893. In 1894 he produced a similarly sized oil painting to Three Taos Indians that pictured six Pueblo men posed before an adobe wall and a window with green shutters. (related image 355a) The artist described that 1894 painting 28 years later as a sketch of a gathering of Indians in front of a Taos store, a scene that had attracted him because of its bright colors and curious grouping of figures. (Cincinnati Enquirer, 12/2/22) It was actually quite a major work, picturing six of the Taos Pueblo's past governors. Sharp titled it The Plaza, a painting that summarizes the conflicted world in which Pueblo people were forced to live. Two of the figures peer into the store's window, distracted from their world by the lure of Anglo dry goods, and one man lights a cigarette, a habit introduced by Anglo civilization. Symbolizing Arcadian innocence and ancient honors, a man squats wearing a laurel-like wreath at the far right. He was Manuel Castellano (Record 422) who Sharp considered a most honorable and wise man. Perhaps he was included to suggest a hint of less temptation in the scene.
In 1922, Sharp painted a new, larger version of the scene titled The Agency Store (Record 501) that he displayed for sale at Traxel's New Art Galleries in Cincinnati. It was a sensation, appearing in several local newspapers as the hit of Sharp’s annual show. It too was freighted with symbolism. The two men on the left are once again attracted by the products of Anglo commerce in the store. The fourth man from the left, as in The Plaza, is again focused on puffing on his cigarette.
It is not known when Sharp painted Three Taos Indians, a third variation on this engaging theme, but probably in the mid-1920s. Two of his models can be identified, John Hunting Son on the left and Jerry Mirabal on the right (who holds the same blanket he wears in The Agency Store). They are posed in much the same grouping as before, fewer in number yet more imposing in the setting. Multi-colored dried corn and a large black olla decorate the scene, and through the window the viewer sees a crucifix, suggesting a separation between Native identity and, sequestered behind the wall, a representation of Christian religious iconography. The crucifix rests at the level of the men’s heads. Interestingly, unlike in the previous paintings, none of the men look in the window. Their backs are turned away from the crucifix, a centerpiece of Christian dogma. Counterpoised to that on the left, lying at the feet of two of the figures, lies another evidence of Anglo intrusion, the discarded but still lit cigarette butt. The artist has inserted himself in the picture as a documentarian by leaving the leather case for his camera lying in the foreground. The cigarette may also infer a connection to the artist as he frequently used tobacco as partial payments for his models. (Troccoli, 2013, 238)
Peter H. Hassrick