The Beaux-Arts Indians of George Brush
The Beaux-Arts Indians of George Brush
By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 24, 2008; C01
"George de Forest Brush: The Indian Paintings" at the National Gallery of
Art is a split-screen exhibition, a thought-divider. Following its plots is
like paying full attention to two movies at once.
The first one is a western. Brush's 20 paintings initially return you to
the thrilling days of yesteryear, to the bygone 1880s, as our
Tennessee-born hero, a young man on a quest, sets off across the plains.
Now he squints at the far Rockies, and rides into Wyoming, and approaches
Fort Washakie, where he'll live with the Arapaho, and with the Shoshones,
before heading for Montana to spend the winter in his tepee on the
campground of the Crow. Then suddenly you find yourself in a completely
different film, "An American in Paris," and the tepees of Montana have been
replaced by artists' garrets, and the eagle-feather headdresses have turned
In 1882, when young George de Forest Brush -- who was born in 1854 or '55
(the records disagree) and died in 1941 -- rode into the West, he wasn't an
ethnographer or a champion of the underdog or a traveling reporter or any
kind of cowboy. He was a painter with a purpose, a Paris-trained
professional seeking subjects for his art.
He knew what he was looking for. The figures he was seeking would be
thrillingly exotic, distinctively American, conveniently unclothed. Indians
would do fine. Those in Brush's paintings have all the right accessories
(beadwork on their moccasins, silver-studded belts, stone arrowheads,
canoes), but they aren't convincing Indians. That's because they're
stand-ins. Brush looked on them as "actors." They are stand-ins for the
youths he meant to show us all along, the figures of the Renaissance, the
gods of Greece and Rome.
Washington museums show a lot of modern art. But they seldom show us this
stuff. Brush was anti-modern. He rejected the newfangled and unquestionably
believed that the one right way of making art had been determined long ago.
He hated mass production and valued craftsmanship so highly that he
couldn't bear to look at objects fashioned by machine. Every now and then,
to his daughter's consternation, Brush would storm through their New
Hampshire home searching out examples -- a chair with lathe-turned legs or
a table from the factory -- which he'd then take out and burn.
The display in the East Building is also retrograde and willful,
exhilarating nonetheless, and just a bit preposterous. It's only partially
American. It is also deeply French.
Brush's French art isn't the French art of the impressionists and the
revolutionaries. It's the other kind. His brush doesn't dash. His touch,
one critic noted in 1886, is "miminy, piminy." His take is slow instead of
glimpsy; his surfaces are licked. Brush's Indian pictures were worked up in
the studio, methodically, laboriously, not torn raw from the world.
This is the painting the impressionists warned us against: French academic
You can see that in their S-curves, the flowing of their draperies, their
conspicuous expertise. They show in every detail how much Brush had learned
in his six years of grueling training at that most demanding of old
Parisian art schools, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
You didn't go the Beaux-Arts to liberate your feelings. The training Brush
received there -- mostly from the great Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) -- was
rigidly severe and relentlessly repetitive. The Beaux-Arts was, in a sense,
a factory for grinding out producers of lush, anachronistic, salon-worthy
Gérôme was Brush's lodestar. That careful Orientalist was best known for
his well-researched visions of exotica -- the slave mart in the casbah, the
harem bath, the mosque, the lions set to gobble up the Christians of old
Rome -- and also for how lusciously he painted bare behinds. "I believe he
is one of the greatest masters, not of modern times," Brush wrote, "but of
all times." The American, returning home, left out the sexy women but
otherwise adhered to the lessons he'd absorbed in Gérôme's "sacred
There were no shortcuts at the Beaux-Arts. First, the student drew -- for
years -- from casts of antique statues. Only when the pupil had shown his
full command of shading and anatomy, proportion and perspective, was he
permitted to advance to drawing from the model -- usually a male, nude,
who, propped up by a pole, held his pose for a week (Monday through
Saturday). No kids attending art schools now are so rigorously schooled.
They wouldn't stand for it. Brush lapped it up.
The models at the Beaux-Arts took their assigned poses from the classics of
art history. Brush's Indians do the same.
The first warrior in a row of them in "Before the Battle" (1886) takes his
pose from Michelangelo's "David." The second strikes a model's pose
standard in the art school, though the pole that holds his arm up has been
replaced by a spear.
The two figures in the foreground of "The Picture Writer's Story" (1884)
are also acting out quotations -- from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel. The
picture writer's pose is that of the Libyan Sibyl; his young listener's is
Adam's. Of course we're meant to notice. Brush quotes the past on purpose
-- to elevate the classiness of his art-for-art's-sake art.
Out in the Wild West, Brush had to have a studio. His tepee (with a wood
stove) was covered in thin muslin that admitted even light. He also needed
models. The first one he employed was a young Crow who was willing to strip
naked and stand there without moving for four hours at a time. Brush paid
$2 a session, "about what I would pay a model in N.Y.," he wrote.
First he'd drawn from plaster casts, then from the Beaux-Arts model. Now
the painter was working "from the Indian."
His Indians aren't really Indians; they aren't really people. They have no
history, no misery, no resentment of their foes. Like the dead birds by
their sides (Brush was great at birds) or the armbands around their biceps
(Brush was peerless, too, at depicting gleaming copper), they are academic
Brush didn't ride a horse to Wyoming. He took the train, the new
wide-funneled train. Life was changing clangingly in the 19th century --
and rather than confront that change, lots of artists (not just Brush)
chose to paint the pure-souled noble primitives of the pre-industrial past.
In France, Jean-François Millet painted pious peasants. In Britain, Sir
Edwin Landseer painted kilted Highlanders. Paul Gauguin chose Tahitians.
Such figures and Brush's Indians have a lot in common. They don't complain
of poverty or gripe about injustice or dispute with their betters. Their
presence in a picture reassures the viewer: Your soul is as pure as theirs.
Many writers of the time also sought to see nobility in the lower orders.
"Tho' I've belted you and flayed you/By the livin' Gawd that made
you/You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!" Rudyard Kipling wrote. The
Lone Ranger's trusty Tonto and Natty Bumppo's Chingachgook and Brush's arty
Indians are noble natives, too.
Brush belongs in the National Gallery. Curator Nancy K. Anderson, who
arranged this exhibition, did so for good reason. Brush could paint. His
training seems archaic now. That doesn't mean his time was wasted. Some of
Brush's details are admirably fine. Take a look, for instance, at "The
Indian and the Lily" (1887). The soft and beaded leather of the Indian's
thigh-high leggings, and the daylight on his arm, and the white and downy
feathers of the spoonbill he's just slain, are all remarkably convincing.
Brush's technique is terrific. It's only when you look at the picture as a
whole that its believability starts to fall apart.
In 1886, the warriors of Geronimo had been transported from the far
Southwest and imprisoned in Fort Marion, an Army post in Florida. Hence
this Florida Apache. Is he yearning for his captured land? No, he's
reaching for a lily, an old emblem of purity. And his southwestern buckskin
leggings make no sense at all. Why aren't they muddy? How come they haven't
rotted in that fetid mangrove swamp?
The picture is a fiction. So are the others. When the painter shows us
Indian artists working in their studios or chatting with their patrons or
sketching from their props, we are nearing once again the art students of
Paris. This is not how Indians lived. In 1884, when Brush came upon some
Indians living, as most did then, in a "miserable condition," he turned
away disgusted. To pursue the goals of art in such a situation was, he
wrote, "impossible." The subject he had come to paint had proved "so
unattractive" and "above all so depressing" that the painter gave it up.
Brush stopped painting Indians in 1890. For the next 50 years (the artist
died, not famous, in 1941), he specialized instead in images of mothers
posing with their children, smooth secular madonnas based on Florentine
examples. "I live for art and not for Indians," wrote George de Forest
George de Forest Brush: The Indian Paintings, the first exhibition of his
20 Native American pictures, through Jan. 4 at the National Gallery of
Art's East Building, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW.
Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is free.
For information: 202-737-4215 or http://www.nga.gov