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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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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.