The twenty-piece collection of George de Forest Brush, currently on display at the National Gallery of Art’s East Building, is technically exquisite, applying academic and classical methods to a wholly American subject – the American Indian. It is also an exercise in metaphor, protesting what Brush saw as the extinction of the natural world brought on by the Industrial Revolution.
Born in Tennessee, Brush attended the National Academy of Design in New York before traveling to Paris to study under Jean-Léon Gérôme. After six years, he returned to America and spent over a year with the Arapahoe and Shoshone in Wyoming and the Crow in Montana. The resulting work portrays two sides of the American Indian, the first as a heroic warrior and hunter in an idealized natural world and the second as an artist in the act of creation.
The natural world is romanticized in Brush’s outdoor scenes. Evidence of his European travel is seen in the Dutch-rendered sky in “Before the Battle,” in which Indians in full battle regalia stand in classic contrapposto, and in the Monet-like water of “The Silence Is Broken.”
Often paired with beautiful swans or cranes, the American Indian becomes a metaphor for the natural world, for a life lived in cooperation with the land. Brush recognizes their inevitable destruction in the impersonal forward march of technical progress, and the mood in many of the paintings is somber.
Brush’s series about the Indian as an artist draws on Aztec themes and influences. There is a shift indoors that occurred as Brush became more concerned that the mechanization and mass production of the Industrial Revolution would negate the art of handmade crafts. Many of these paintings show a solitary figure engaged in weaving a carpet or carving walls.
In “The Crane Ornament,” Brush shows a young man studying a dead crane for a wall carving he is creating. In an ironic twist, the Indian is using the death of a bird for his art in much the same way that Brush is using the death of the Indian’s way of life for his. Completely absorbed in their subjects, both artists produce beautiful, compelling pieces.
The temporary collection of small and medium paintings, mostly oil on panel, lines two rooms, and there are three display plaques that provide a brief overview of the work. There is also a catalogue that offers new research and deeper insights into Brush’s work. This stunning collection is presented in association with the Seattle Art Museum and will be on display until January 4. For more information, visit www.nga.gov.