- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2008

George de Forest Brush made his reputation in the 1880s painting scenes of American Indians. He journeyed to Wyoming and Montana where he lived among the Arapahoe, Shoshones and Crows to study their costumes and customs.

Yet for all his direct observations, Brush’s outdoor scenes lack the freshness and verve of better known paintings of American Indians by artists such as George Catlin and Frederic Remington. Brush’s bare-chested, muscular braves are romanticized figures by way of Paris. Before heading West, Brush trained under the admired French academic painter, Jean-Leon Gerome, and never loosened his grip on tradition to experiment in the nascent modernism of his day.

Apart from a few sketches at the start, most of the works in “George de Forest Brush: The Indian Paintings” at the National Gallery of Art were invented in the studio. Their stylized figures in imagined settings are far removed from the roughness of the frontier, turning this small, quiet show of 21 canvases and sketches into an intriguing study of contradictions.

Organized with the Seattle Art Museum, the exhibit brings together works from private collections long hidden from view. Two of its works were donated to the National Gallery during the show’s conception, including one of the few surviving life studies from Brush’s Western travels. In 1937, a fire devastated the artist’s studio in Dublin, N.H., destroying much of his work so that only a partial view of his career is possible.

The exhibit begins with a marvelous, unfinished self-portrait of Brush, who was born in Tennessee and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Darien, Conn. In 1882, the artist traveled to Wyoming to join his older brother Alfred at his ranch at the base of the Rockies and began sketching the Indians as a way to set himself apart from his contemporaries.

Sensitively drawn portraits of Arapahoe and Shoshone youths made on this trip reveal Brush’s talent for capturing individual character and emotion. This specificity, however, disappeared after the artist returned to his New York studio and applied his French training to his subjects.

He turned his sketches into Indians as idealized as the classical heroes from ancient Greece favored by other academic artists. In paintings such as “Before the Battle” and “The Picture Writer’s Story,” he borrowed poses from Renaissance masterpieces by Michelangelo.

Brush was more interested in using the Indian as a metaphor for his conservative beliefs than in Catlin’s ethnographic approach. He saw his paintings of indigenous people in their unsullied habitats as a personal protest against what he called the “blight of the machine age.”

In much the same way as the artist’s teacher Gerome used North African cultures to suggest foreign mystery, Brush depicted Indians to illuminate a disappearing “primitive” society in the wild. The exotic subject matter was meant to appeal to wealthy male patrons interested in the exploration of perilous, untamed lands.

Brush’s images of lone Indians and small tribal groups bear little resemblance to reality, but his figures and landscapes are so exquisitely rendered as to make the fiction convincingly tangible. One of the most arresting, “The Silence Broken,” pictures an Indian in a canoe against a dark forest while he gazes up at a swan flying overhead. The artist skillfully grounds his imagery in the physical world so that the implausibility of the scene is soon forgotten.

A more dramatic work, “Mourning Her Brave,” reflects Brush’s compositional and narrative skills. It depicts a widow in the snow beneath her mate’s shrouded body and a circling bird. The woman’s clothing mirrors the rounded shape of the cliff - a probable borrowing from the billowing fisherwomen’s skirts favored by Brush’s contemporary Winslow Homer - while the gray-wrapped corpse almost blends into the rocky ledge above her. The work has a graphic, storybook quality, which influenced illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth.

Visitors may wonder why some of Brush’s landscapes are filled with Spanish moss and palm trees. The exhibit omits an explanation of the artist’s 1887 trip to Florida to refresh his contacts with American Indians. Brush traveled south thinking Apache chief Geronimo would be sent to St. Augustine, Fla., to join his imprisoned tribe members at Fort Marion. Instead, the chieftain was moved to Pensacola and the artist spent time sketching the Apaches at the fort.

The paintings influenced by this trip are some of the more fantastic in the exhibit. “The Indian and the Lily” shows a man dressed in over-the-knee buckskin boots, their soft folds and beaded trim reflecting Brush’s virtuoso technique. Framed by a gloomy forest, he kneels to pluck a flower from the swamp. The poignant gesture effectively symbolizes the Indians’ reach for independence during a dark period of oppression by the U.S. government.

As in several Florida-inspired works, the Indian is curiously paired with a dead bird. A conservationist, Brush meant this imagery to symbolize the killing of entire avian species during the late 1800s for their feathers, which were turned into fashionable hat plumes. He hoped to raise public consciousness of this extermination through his artwork, an environmentalist message that still resonates today.

The exhibit ends with a grouping of “Aztec” Indian paintings more fanciful than the American scenes. The most ambitious of these pictures places a king and a sculptor in front of an ancient stone carving. As noted by a critic of Brush’s day, the painting “is a little confusing” in its combination of Italian marble, Navajo blanket and Pompeian grain jar.

Historical accuracy didn’t matter to Brush, who saw the carving and weaving Indians in his series as representing the disappearance of craftsmanship in a rapidly industrializing society. He may have also considered the creative tribesmen as surrogates for his own traditionalist practices during a decade when Impressionism was taking off.

Despite his love of Indian lore (he built tepees and dressed in tribal garb), Brush radically changed his direction in the 1890s when he turned to portraits of his wife and children. Domesticity finally trumped his inner savage.

WHAT: “George de Forest Brush: The Indian Paintings”

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday; through Jan. 4

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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