The Beaux-Arts Indians of George Brush

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 24, 2008

"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Then suddenly you find yourself in a completely different film, "An American in Paris," and the tepees of Montana have been replaced by artists' garrets, and the eagle-feather headdresses have turned into berets.

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 art.

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 art.

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 atelier."

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.

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