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Painted Indian

The early work of George de Forest Brush on display at the National Gallery of Art.

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 2008 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
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George de Forest Brush (1855-1941) is far from being a household name, but his early paintings of Indians garnered him the attention, admiration, and purse of the 19th-century art world. Little of this work has been seen in public, however, since private collectors bought the paintings as soon as they went on sale in the 1880s and sequestered them in family estates, including Yves Saint Laurent's. Nancy K. Anderson, curator of British and American art, and a small band of scholars located 21 of the paintings over a ten year period. These works are now on display at the National Gallery of Art until January 4, at which time they will move west to the Seattle Art Museum.

The exhibition begins with a small portrait not of an Indian but of the artist himself. He is a handsome man, thirty-something, serious, and dapper, but his portrait is not quite finished. The crisp white collar is there, deftly rendered in taught, baby brushstrokes, but where his jacket would be there is only a hurried film of brown paint--a sign that Brush didn't care to tell us much about his dress or status or, ultimately, about how he might differ from us. What he does have in common with us is what he spent his time and paint on: a face.

Perhaps it seems like a stretch to infer so much from one painting. Yet close examination of the other works on view provides further example. The figures themselves, all Indians, are the focus of his paintings, elements to contextualize the figures seeming to have mattered little. He renders backgrounds as flat expanses of marble or rock or snow or dark, still water. Against such backgrounds the figures stand out like crisp-edged paper dolls. Take "An Aztec Sculptor," 1887, for example. Here the Indian dominates the painting, while jots of color--light cadmium orange and turquoise--border his body in order to pull our gaze toward him. And the marble wall background, barely carved, contains little detail to distract us from him.

"Brushpainting.jpg" "An Aztec Sculptor," 1887.

In May 1885 Century Magazine published an interview with Brush. On the question of "Indians as subjects of pictorial art," he said, "I do not paint from the historian's and the antiquary's point of view; I do not care to represent [Indians] in any curious habits which could not be comprehended by us; I am interested in those habits and deeds in which we have feelings in common."

One commentator remarked on Brush's first major Indian painting, "Mourning Her Brave," 1883. He said that Brush had "sought the elemental thing" and "translated Indian life into a language we can all understand. He has brought the eastern man and woman and the Indian brother heart to heart." Note that the painting aims to illustrate not a specific time or place or woman; but a specific emotion, the grief following the loss of one's husband.

Brush developed his lean, formal style in New York and then in Paris, at L'ecole des Beaux Arts, bastion of the French Academic style which coiffed, manicured, pruned, and polished his talents according to classical standards. Upon returning to the states, Brush went out west and set up camp with the Arapaho, Shoshones, and Crow. He was known to pitch a teepee from time to time, don a headdress, and pay Indians two bucks an hour (the going rate in New York) to model for him. Yet his handling of Indians as pictorial subjects was perennially French. The Indians Brush paints are tanned-skin versions of the Greek, Roman, and Renaissance sculptures he studied in France under Jean-Léon Gérôme, a painter who helped usher French Salon painting into its heyday. In fact, in this show alone, three of his figures directly quote Michelangelo's work. In "Before the Battle" the central warrior is David gussied up in a red loincloth and spiffy white moccasins. And in "The Picture Writer's Story" one figure is the male twin of the Sistine Chapel's Libyan sibyl, here pointing to stick figures instead of picking up a hefty tome, while the other is Adam himself, here turned to the left instead of the right. Brush's Indians aren't flesh and blood. They're stuffed dolls stitched in his imagination.

As a gallery plaque rightly notes, the Indian paintings served as "the perfect foil" to the changing world Brush lived in. Brush detested industrialization. He probably held a funeral for candles when Wabash, Indiana, became the first electrically lit city on March 31, 1880. Some accounts say he periodically purged his home of mass-produced items and condemned manufactured stools to the garbage pail. What Brush loved about the Indian was simple: He worked with his own hand. Many of Brush's paintings from late 1880s can be viewed as odes to craftsmanship. They depict Indians sitting alone, quietly tending to a loom or marble slab, much like Brush, sitting alone, quietly tending to his canvas.

Ultimately Brush's work is a portrait not of the Indian but of ideas. When Brush visited a group of Indians in 1884, he found his old subject "so unattractive" and "above all so depressing" that he abandoned painting them in 1890. "I live for art," he said, "and not for Indians."

And yet the gallery is concerned with celebrating the Indian. It teamed with the National Museum of the American Indian, which rang in November--also known as "National American Indian Heritage Month"--with its own show about Indian art: "Indian/ Not Indian," the largest retrospective to date of the work of Fritz Scholder (1937-2005). Together, the gallery and museum sponsored an eight-part film series called Film Indians Now! which endeavored to "take a contemporary look at American Indians in cinema from a variety of perspectives."

George de Forest Brush's early Indian paintings may be a somewhat odd choice if the gallery wanted to offer a portrait of the Indian. What this focused, intimate show does offer is a fine portrait of a talented, and now, less obscure artist. And if his work seems quaint next to the Motherwell holding sway on the second floor, that's no matter; his canvases earn viewers' respect if only by their consistent and rigorous display of technique. One fellow told me he wished he'd brought a magnifying glass to better inspect the strokes. Another, relishing a particular orange hue, whispered "resplendent."

Katherine Eastland is an assistant editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.