""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Then suddenly you find yourself in a completely different film, "An American in Paris," and the tepees of Montana have been replaced by artists' garrets, and the eagle-feather headdresses have turned into berets.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."
Get the Story:
The Beaux-Arts Indians of George Brush
(The Washington Post 9/24)