September 25, 2008

Romantic Indians in Brush's paintings

The Beaux-Arts Indians of George BrushIn 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.
And:The models at the Beaux-Arts took their assigned poses from the classics of art history. Brush's Indians do the same.

The first warrior in a row of them in "Before the Battle" (1886) takes his pose from Michelangelo's "David." The second strikes a model's pose standard in the art school, though the pole that holds his arm up has been replaced by a spear.
The point of Brush's style:His Indians aren't really Indians; they aren't really people. They have no history, no misery, no resentment of their foes. Like the dead birds by their sides (Brush was great at birds) or the armbands around their biceps (Brush was peerless, too, at depicting gleaming copper), they are academic props.

Brush didn't ride a horse to Wyoming. He took the train, the new wide-funneled train. Life was changing clangingly in the 19th century--and rather than confront that change, lots of artists (not just Brush) chose to paint the pure-souled noble primitives of the pre-industrial past.

In France, Jean-Fran├žois Millet painted pious peasants. In Britain, Sir Edwin Landseer painted kilted Highlanders. Paul Gauguin chose Tahitians. Such figures and Brush's Indians have a lot in common. They don't complain of poverty or gripe about injustice or dispute with their betters. Their presence in a picture reassures the viewer: Your soul is as pure as theirs.
Comment:  Compare Brush's paintings with those of Kent Monkman--for instance, "The Triumph of Mischief."

Below:  In "Before the Battle" by George de Forest Brush, the first warrior's pose evokes Michelangelo's "David."

P.S. A chief wearing nothing but a loincloth? I'm guessing that was rare.

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