American Painter Eloquently Depicted Decline of Indians
“George de Forest Brush: The Indian Paintings” is a rediscovery of sorts of the Tenn-essee-born artist who himself sought to discover the country’s Native American people and their beautiful, yet disappearing culture in the late 1800s.
In fact, the collection of 21 paintings was inspired by the recent discovery of “An Aztec Sculptor,” an 1887 painting that signaled a different approach to one of Brush’s favorite subjects, the American Indians.
But it’s important to note that Brush looked at American Indians — always a popular subject in 19th-century painting and prized by collectors both in Europe and the United States — somewhat differently, examining their lives much as a literary type might look at them. Brush in fact had the brush of a poet in his paintings, unlike the realism depicted by George Catlin, for instance, or the intense, action-filled storytelling approach of Frederic Remington. It’s fair to say though by the results on hand that Brush might surpass Catlin and Remington, both legendary American painters in their own right.
Although a number of the 21 paintings in this exhibition were based on Brush’s real-life observations while in Wyoming, he depicted Indians from a somewhat idealized perspective — capturing a traditional way of life that was being eroded by urbanization and expressing what the loss of the American West meant to him.
In this way, Brush’s paintings, though not necessarily elaborate, may be described as high-art elegant, using the subject as a muse for metaphor. It’s not that Brush didn’t know his subjects — including the young Arapahoe and Shoshone men he often painted — rather it’s that he was trained in a certain style and had strong personal feelings about America’s embrace of modernism and industry.
Thus, Brush’s Indian portraits offer many things, but don’t expect to see a window into the souls of singular human beings. These works are more like windows to ideas, an echo of sad, beautiful music no longer played.
Even the paintings executed in the studio are powerful works, depicting the body in pose and repose. They’re not exactly real, but the feelings they manage to elicit are real.
Take, for instance, the centerpiece of the exhibit, “An Aztec Sculptor,” which proposes to imagine just what the title says, as part of a series on the extinct Mexican civilization. Highly praised, the studio painting was a spectacular success, having been quickly snatched up by collector Thomas Clarke and not resurfacing again until 2004.
“An Aztec Sculptor” also marked a shift in Brush’s painting, focusing on Indians in the process of creating art. Brush was fearful that the rush of modernism would sweep away interest in crafts and the traditional way of making art, and this piece — loving in its detail of the human figure and its worshipful respect for what is being constructed — was in a sense an answer to that future. Others in this series include “The Weaver,”“The Crane Ornament” and “The Sculptor and the King,” all of which demonstrate the power of creating art — and the power of preserving it.
At one point Brush lived on a Crow tribe reservation in Montana, the result of which we see in “Indian Village at Dawn,” a beautifully evocative landscape full of teepees and light, with no apparent living beings in it, but a stunning portrait depicting a way of life nonetheless. If Brush’s Aztec paintings and his later fluid images of hunting are idealized and almost mournful, “Indian Village at Dawn” is authentic and fresh.
Brush was a gifted artist, which is pretty clear from the variety among the 21 paintings on display — from “The Revenge,” a dramatic, high-energy depiction of a warrior on his horse that would have given Remington a run for his money, to straightfor-ward portraits such as “Old Washakie” and “A Young Shoshone,” beautiful in their simplicity.
The works are all the more remarkable because of the fact that Brush was, in spite of his sojourns into the American West, a clean-shaven, highly educated and hardly rugged Easterner raised in Brooklyn and Connecticut, who even trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Despite returning to the East Coast to teach, it’s clear the West maintained a hold on Brush, the van-ishing of its landscape and its first people keenly felt by the artist and his brushstrokes.
George de Forest Brush: The Indian Paintings through Jan. 4 National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.