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George de Forest Brush: The Indian Paintings

The National Gallery has reunited 20 of George de Forest Brush's paintings of Indian tribes.

George de Forest Brush: The Indian PaintingsNational Gallery, Washington, D.C.Through Jan. 4

“George de Forest Brush may not be a household name to most Americans,” said I-Ching Ng in Roll Call. But in the late 19th century he was among the nation’s foremost artists. Perhaps no other American was as skilled in the French style of academic painting. Yet this young East Coast sophisticate, after studying in Paris, decided to strike out for Indian territory. His paintings of the native tribes there made him famous, and the National Gallery has now reunited 20 of them. Mourning Her Brave (1883) depicts an Arapahoe widow standing on a snowy peak, “her ocher-colored shawl billowing in the wind.” Before the Battle (1886) shows a nearly naked young Indian man as a near-perfect physical specimen, like Michelangelo’s David. “Brush champions the universality of humanity, instead of treating the natives as somehow different.”

That’s just the problem—Brush doesn’t work hard enough to capture these Indians’ distinctive individuality, said Paul Richard in The Washington Post. Even though Brush renders details accurately, these “aren’t convincing Indians.” In The Indian and the Lily (1887), for instance, Brush creates “remarkably convincing” textures: the feathers of a spoonbill, the leather worn by an Apache, the daylight falling on his arm. “It’s only when you look at the picture as a whole that its believability starts to fall apart.” Look at the man’s leggings. “Why aren’t they muddy?” These aren’t garments you’d expect on a battle-scarred follower of Geronimo. They’re studio props. Brush’s fondness for European painting kept him from studying reality. He “wasn’t an ethnographer.” He was just an old-fashioned painter in search of “conveniently unclothed” subjects to paint.

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