Joseph Henry Sharp was born in Bridgeport, Ohio. At a young age, Sharp had a serious ear infection that resulted in his permanent hearing loss. Recognizing his career limitations and his heightened aesthetic awareness, his mother sent him to the McMicken School of Design. Eventually, in 1881, Sharp went to Europe to study art. He returned to Cincinnati in the fall of 1882 where he had a studio in the same building as Henry Farny. Although Farny discouraged him from painting the American Indian, the idea fascinated Sharp and in the spring of 1883, he made his first trip west. In the northwest he encountered natives from numerous tribes, and the sketches he created would be the basis for his first Native American portraits.
In June of 1885, Sharp returned to Europe and enrolled in the Royal Academy of Munich. It was there, under the tutelage of Frank Duveneck, that he began painting portraits and learned to paint flesh tones. He also studied the technique of direct painting, wet on wet, blending brushstrokes together to create a richly fluid appearance. He later continued his studies in Paris at the Acadèmie Julian where he was influenced both by the Barbizon painters and the Impressionists, and was exposed to plein air painting, the accurate utilization of light and shadow.
In 1897, Sharp began to spend summers in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico, and in Crow Agency in Montana. In Montana he became acquainted with the Plains Indians and began painting portraits. In 1900, an exhibition of these portraits would travel to Paris and to Washington D.C., and would prove to be a turning point in his career. The Smithsonian Institutions purchased eleven portraits, and later, Phoebe Apperson Hearst bought eighty paintings from Sharp all at once. His time in Montana allowed him to amass a huge personal collection of Native American artifacts. It was important to him that these things be preserved and understood, and made sure he knew all of his portrait subjects personally.
In 1909 Sharp purchased an old Penitente chapel to use as a studio and later moved to Taos permanently. He is widely considered to have been the "Spiritual Father" of the Taos Society of Artists, being the first painter to visit New Mexico, before Phillips and Blumenschein made their historic wagon trip. Sharp was captivated by the unspoiled life of the natives in Taos. An interesting note about his first years in Taos is that he painted several pictures of Plains Indians there, using locals as models with costume from his own collection. It is interesting to see a portrait of an Indian with hair braided in the Taos style, wearing plains garb and a scowl. Aside from the portraits, Sharp recorded the environment and life of the pueblo. He sketched outdoors and completed paintings in his studio. Sharp left behind thousands of paintings, an unparalleled visual record of the Native American. The National Cyclopedia of American Biography neatly describes his work: " His paintings express a strange poetic note, rare sense of beauty, and rich tonal perception."