1892 Fountain Square comes alive in painting

Posted at 7:41 AM, Dec 14, 2015

CINCINNATI -- On a snowy Saturday afternoon one past winter, I was perched at Palomino, where I had a perfect view of the skating on Fountain Square.

The unusually wintry weather meant the ice rink was still in good shape, and little hockey players were on the ice, red shirts versus yellow shirts, while family members and onlookers huddled around the gates. The Genius of Water overlooked the scene, her hands dry.

The Fountain Square of today attracts more than 2 million people annually with year-round events including concerts, festivals and markets. The Fountain Square of 1892 was not all that different.

At that time, Cincinnatians were just starting to enjoy the benefits of the electric streetcars that were replacing horse- and cable-drawn cars. The bustling square was a transit hub framed by hotels and office buildings, and the anchor of the northwest corner was the Mabley & Carew department store, which drew families Downtown for Christmas shows well into the 20th century.

A masterful painting in the Cincinnati Art Museum’s collection depicts this holiday spectacle: Joseph Henry Sharp’s “Fountain Square Pantomime,” which is unusual for a few reasons. Sharp, who left the Queen City to live in New Mexico for the latter half of his life, is best known for his portrayals of Native American life.

Despite the tableau’s setting of Fountain Square, you can only see a tiny fraction of the actual landmark, and despite the title’s focus on the pantomime, the work’s focus is on the crowd’s reaction.

The painting is also deeper than it might appear to our modern eyes: Sharp included the faces of many of his friends, some of them Cincinnati luminaries, in the picture.

I spent a few weeks combing through newspaper archives, scrapbooks and curatorial files to identify the painting’s luminaries and shed light on the Cincinnati of Sharp’s time.

The Cincinnati scene

Sharp was born in Bridgeport, Ohio, just across the river from West Virginia, in 1859. His father was a merchant, and the family moved down the Ohio to Ironton in 1870.

At age 12, he lost his hearing after a swimming accident, and school became more difficult. He worked in a nail factory in Ironton for two years until he was accepted at the McMicken School in Cincinnati (now the Art Academy of Cincinnati) at 14.

After enrolling, Sharp lived with relatives and worked at the stockyards as a water boy to pay for his schooling. He didn’t labor very long: He sold his first painting within a few years.

By the 1880s, Sharp was a working artist who traveled the world to perfect his craft: He studied in Antwerp, Belgium, and Munich, Germany, spending whole seasons abroad, returning in between to Cincinnati. When he returned for good in 1889, the local art scene was booming.

The Cincinnati of 1892 was a sooty metropolis and the gateway to America’s West. The city had just hosted a grand industrial exposition in 1888 for its centennial, and artists Frank Duveneck and Henry Farny, who had adopted Cincinnati as their home, had achieved international attention. Many local painters, including Sharp, found employment with the Art Academy, and many of those artists founded the Cincinnati Art Club in 1890. (According to lore, a member’s dog was granted membership to push the number past an unlucky 13.)

fountain square 1862

Courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum

In the summer of 1892, Sharp married Addie Byram, a woman from Indiana whom he’d met at a Cincinnati Art Club function. They moved to Walnut Hills’ new Trevarren Flats at 961 E. McMillan St. in 1894 and lived there until they left town.

The apartments housed working but comfortable families: The 1900 census shows Sharps’ neighbors included a few clerks, an engineer, a school teacher and another artist, Edward S. Butler, also a founding member of the Cincinnati Art Club.

After falling into disrepair in the latter half of the 20th century, the Trevarren building was bought by the city in 2010, underwent an expensive stabilization in 2013 and is now in the final stages of rehabilitation as part of a multimillion-dollar redevelopment project. Kevin Wright of the Walnut Hills Redevelopment Foundation said the plan is to create market-rate apartments in the three buildings that compose the Trevarren Flats.

“It’s a rare building, architecturally,” Wright said. “It really sets the tone for the district.”

On the Square

The site Fountain Square occupies has been a public space since Cincinnati’s early days.

Before 1870, it was simply a wide esplanade that hosted a butcher’s market. (A Federal Writer’s Project travel guide to Cincinnati said the city had a gang of workmen raze the stalls in a single night when the tradesmen refused to vacate the space.) The Tyler Davidson Fountain was dedicated in 1871, giving it the name we know today, and traffic flowed both north and south of the fountain. In the 1970s, the westbound traffic was cut off.

The fountain was restored and cleaned in 2000, ahead of the major Square renovation completed in 2006, which included re-centering the fountain.

With his studio so close by, Sharp likely passed through the Square daily. Most of the streetcars in the city ran through Fountain Square and Government Square, and the line Sharp would have taken to Walnut Hills was the first to be run on cables rather than by horses.

And perhaps Sharp outfitted himself at the department store on the square: Mabley & Carew advertised itself as the “lowest priced house in the Ohio Valley.” Its 1890 catalog of men’s fashions advertised cutaway suits in cheviots, cashmeres and tweeds selling for $8 to $18 (equivalent to about $200 to $460 today).

At the time, buying readymade clothing was the exception, not the rule, and so the store had to make the hard sell on mass production: “Doesn’t it strike you that a big clothing manufacturer making several million dollars worth of garments every year can supply these details more intelligently and fully than a local tailor who buys at most but a small selection of cloths and trimmings? In buying ready-made garments you get the pick of the best.”

To draw customers into the store, Mabley & Carew staged circuses, pantomimes and other spectacles. A Dec. 7, 1890, piece in the Enquirer described the delighted children at performances of “Red Riding Hood,” as well as visits from Santa Claus on Fountain Square.

“Packed like sardines, every inch of available space covered with little toddlers’ feet, or those of adults who held them aloft. … They were of all sizes and ranks. The scion of wealth fought for his point of vantage with the ragamuffin, and when the first curtain was raised, and there displayed to view was the familiar form of Santa Claus, a shout went to heaven and down through alleys and streets from a thousand throats, which told plainer than words that the old fellow was still king.”

Mabley & Carew commissioned Sharp to create “Fountain Square Pantomime,” which hung in the store for years. The painting itself is quite dark, but when it’s seen in person, the highlights practically glow. The tableau also shows a sense of humor: The street urchins at the front of the scene taunt a policeman, and a bull terrier seems to be as enraptured with the pantomime as any of the people. 

Many members of the Cincinnati Art Club, such as L.H. Meakin, who had a studio in the same building as Sharp, as well as other prominent people, are hidden in plain sight. Also spotted is John Rettig, who created stage designs for many productions of the time, including Mabley & Carew’s pantomimes.

It was at Sharp’s studio on Fourth Street, the block where Carew Tower now stands, that he first showed “Fountain Square Pantomime.”

A social column in the Nov. 15, 1892, issue of the Enquirer described the painting as “a fine composition on a theme pregnant with interest which Sharp has been the first local artist to elaborate. Sharp’s coloring is nothing if not intense, realistic to a degree that at times is temporarily dazzling.”

Art historian Forrest Fenn wrote in his monograph that Sharp never created another tableau like “Fountain Square Pantomime.”

“I think he painted it to make a statement that said, ‘Look out world, because here I come.’ It was his most complicated painting, and he probably worked on it longer than any other,” Fenn said in an email.

The next year, Sharp made his first trip to Taos, N.M., where he created illustrations of Indian life for Harper’s Weekly. He had long been fascinated by Native Americans, and his new subject matter appealed to American society’s interest in the romance of the West. The frontier was no more; the traditional ways of the Native Americans were changing forever. And Sharp’s work changed with them.