Brush’s Lost Masterpieces

Quiet Painter Depicts Native Americans

Posted September 12, 2008 at 5:10pm

George de Forest Brush may not be a household name for most Americans, but his luminous brushstrokes and skills of mastery acquired from the French painting tradition have turned his works into sought-after items in the world of 19th-century arts.

With his works largely kept in private collections (and thus rarely seen), the efforts to reintroduce this American master to the public more than a century later amounted to an international treasure hunt. Many zealous arts aficionados and scholars — including the National Gallery of Art’s Curator of American and British Paintings Nancy Kay Anderson — played the role of art detectives for more than 10 years to locate many of the artist’s apparently lost masterpieces on American Indians.

The National Gallery of Art is now presenting these rediscovered paintings — 21 of them, including many that once hung in collectors’ homes (one, in fact, from the estate of late fashion high priest Yves Saint Laurent) for generations — for the first time.

Painted in the 1880s, these works were the height of Brush’s artistic achievement, Anderson said, before the master succumbed to economic pressures (he was the father of eight children) and switched to painting the more commercially viable images of secular Madonnas modeled on his wife and children.

The burst of creativity that led to the American Indian paintings stemmed from the young artist’s daring exploration in the 1880s. He roamed the American wilderness and spent months living with Arapahoe and Shoshone tribes in Wyoming and Montana.

In his canvases, Brush champions the universality of humanity, instead of treating the natives as somehow different. In “Mourning her Brave,” an American Indian widow descends from a snow-covered cliff, with her ocher-colored shawl billowing in the wind. After the ritual, the woman shaved her hair and bared her feet. “Brush believes that we may grieve differently, but we all share the same emotion,” Anderson said.

Unlike his peers, Brush refused to be an ethnographer who diligently recorded American Indian lives. Instead, he used the Native Americans as a metaphor to unleash his commentaries on social ills. In one series, he painted a solitary Indian in an unspoiled landscape that would be soon polluted by the onset of industrialization. There are Indians pedaling in the lake with a single swan or hunting down a spoonbill, themes that echoed concerns about endangered species when these works were created in 1886, the year the Audubon Society was established.

In the many years Brush explored the subject, he shifted from painting the haunting life portraits and outdoor escapades of the American Indians to studio compositions that set the native craftsmen in fictional, indoor settings.

Anderson said Brush apparently was inspired by the 1887 Aztec fair that was held in New York City where Central American crafts were showcased. Brush created a series casting Indian artisans engaged in weaving, carving marble relief or sculpting a king’s image, to evoke the urgent need to salvage the indigenous craftsmanship that would be threatened by machinery.

An American artist who mastered his skills in Europe, Brush often paid homage to the European and Renaissance art tradition in his works. In “The Picture Writer’s Story” (1884), Brush modeled the American Indian historian and the listening young boy on the reverse image of the Libyan Sibyl and Adam from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. “Before the Battle” (1886) centered on a young Native American warrior who unabashedly displays his David-like body.

While European painters trace their history to the glory of the Renaissance, by highlighting the achievements of the native Indians and Central American civilization, Brush has made a statement that American art history does not pale in comparison.

Call 202-737-4215 or visit nga.gov for more information on “George de Forest Brush: The Indian Paintings” on display at the National Gallery of Art, Sept. 14, 2008-Jan. 4, 2009.