239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

Day
111
 | 
July 30, 1912
Dublin, NH
Storify Feature

George De Forest Brush, “Lover of Indians”

A FIRE BURNED in a clearing a few steps from the house on Brush Farm. A chair tottered on top, as the flames licked its legs. It cracked and gently succumbed to the heat.

They never knew on Brush Farm when George De Forest Brush would go on a rampage through the house checking for furniture with lathe-turned legs, to see if it had been made by machine. If it was, then out it went to the bonfire. “No machinery can do joyful work,” he believed. “The really useful things,” he said, “are made ugly by machinery and only the few things of life are beautiful.”

Brush’s daughter, Nancy, wrote in her memoirs that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asked Mrs. Parsons to explain Bahá’u’lláh to Brush. But ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also told her that Brush would laugh at her. Everything Agnes Parsons did was high Washington society, dressed to the nines, stiff and formal with her strong Southern accent. Here in Dublin folks were more relaxed, especially the easy-going artists.

George studied in New York and then in Paris at the conservative École des Beaux-Arts under Jean-Léon Gérôme, the orientalist painter. “Orientalism,” several Middle Eastern scholars have argued, was more than just the study of the East. It was “a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” Western scholars, poets, and painters took control of the intellectual content of the Eastern world, they argue, “by making statements about it, authorizing views of it, describing it, by teaching it, settling it, ruling over it.”


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One of Gérôme’s most famous paintings, The Snake Charmer, displays the kind of romanticized, erroneous view of the East that the critics of Orientalism objected to. A python wraps around the naked body of a young boy, suffused in a mystical blue light, while a group of men observe the show, dressed in colorful tribal costumes and carrying strange weapons. The image is an exotic and erotic blend of Arabic, Turkish, Egyptian, and Indian motifs. Gérôme’s near-photographic realism sparkles from the canvas, but the scene is entirely concocted from his imagination: it has no basis in fact.

From Gérôme, Brush learned to paint the anatomy of the human form: a skill acquired laboriously, by copying Renaissance and classical sculpture, and, eventually, by drawing and painting directly from live nude models. But when Brush returned to America, he was met by a society not interested in mythological themes or paintings of nudes.

So he had to find a subject. Brush went West to Wyoming with his brother for a year. Here he lived with the Shoshone tribe and he spent some time with the Crow people. According to Walt Schnabel “a Crow chief named Plenty Coups said that he had never forgotten Brush’s visit or his ‘words of eternal wisdom’ that had a profound effect on the Crow nation.”

George de Forest Brush had found his perfect subject: the Indian. Quintessentially American, romantically exotic, and almost nude — what a good substitute for the gods of Greece and Rome. What he didn’t find in his travels he created in his studio. His daughter fondly called him a “lover of Indians,” but, as he pointed out, “I live for art and not for Indians.” “[T]he Indian,” he said, “is part of nature and is no more ridiculous than the smoke that curls up from the wigwam, or the rock and pines on the mountainside.”

Brush’s technique was delicate and meticulous, and his ideal Indians won a gold medal at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The Chicago fair promoted Orientalist viewpoints on a large scale for the first time in America. It was these perceptions of Easterners that shaped Americans’ initial views of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as a “Wise Man Out Of The East” in 1912.

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You can find more of Brush’s work here, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/melvin.peed.9 Melvin Peed

    asdf

  • http://www.facebook.com/melvin.peed.9 Melvin Peed

    Edward Said’s brilliant thesis informs our perception of history past and our perceptions of ourselves.  But we have to be careful not to back-date our “modern” perceptions and think of previous generations as backward. Cultural narratives change with new information which changes the way we see things and hopefully that results in new modes of being.  Our ancestors were inventing new forms and seeking truth in their own light just as we are. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us, as it were. 

    Our so-called “modern” world is characterized entirely by the ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine and an overt sense of manifest destiny by the global hegemon and its client states.  The only thing that has changed is the scale of genocide and the silence which surrounds it.  We can only hope that our own sordid period is viewed kindly by future historicists. The word “modern” is a conceit.

  • Gordon Kerr

    Whereas Said and others rightly point out how imperialist power relations have always distorted our vision of ” client states ” in the Middle East and elsewhere (listening to Fox News today not much has changed it would seem) I agree that modern perceptions of Orientalism contain their own hypocrisies.  My own limited reading of the literature of the period suggests that at least part of the romanticism of the period may be explained by a genuine impulse to promote more positive relations between the races and heighten appreciation of the beauty of other cultures. No one can deny that artistic liberties were taken and sometime less savoury prurient interests took hold but one could argue that the same forces are still much in evidence today.

    • Roopduds

      (“listening to Fox News today not much has changed ‘” Gordon Kerr

       I THINK AND KNOW TOO THAT A LOT HAS CHANGED SINCE A HUNDRED YEARS AGO SINCE ABDUL BAHA TOUCH SOIL IN AMERICA..

      CHANGES FOR THE BEST IS CONSTANTLY GOING ON  ………..

       ” It is the inherent nature of things on this earth to change, thus we see around us the change of the seasons. Every spring is followed by a summer and every autumn brings a winter — every day a night and every evening a morning. There is a sequence in all things.”
       (Abdu’l-Baha, Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 27)

    • Karridine

       ”… period may be explained by a genuine impulse to promote more positive
      relations between the races and heighten appreciation of the beauty of
      other cultures,” is core, to me, on reading this.

      My perspective on this is shaped by an American birth-childhood, followed by honorable military service (USS Pueblo incident, Top-Secret stuff) followed by professional study and accreditation, followed by 31 years in Asia, speaking fluent Korean and later, Thai and Lao…

      For 31 years, I have been ‘one-of-them’, in essentially racist, ethnocentric cultures striving toward material wealth and repeatedly striving to ignore Baha’u'llah’s Message. For 3 decades, I have been subject to racist epithets, slurs and snubs, both intentional and unintentional, while living the life and teaching the Faith…

      During this time, a ‘genuine impulse to promote more positive
      relations between the races and heighten appreciation of the beauty of
      other cultures’ has been foremost in my mind, one of the rational, practical extensions of COURTESY (“…the King of the virtues…”) and JUSTICE (‘…the Best-Beloved of all things in My sight…’)

      Bridge-building, seed-planting and garden-tending SOMETIMES yield fast, visible results, but oft-times simmer and roil, slumber and toil, month after month for 365 MONTHS even… my pleasure, my delight, I assure you! :D

    • Nancy

      Thank you for your comment. George DeForest Brush was indeed trying to promote more positive relations between the races and to heighten the beauty of other cultures – see his daughter, Nancy Bowditch’s book, George DeForest Brush, Recollections of a Joyous Painter and you will read that he was beloved by all in the West when he was a young man and even was allowed to participate in the Sun Dance.  He believed in the Baha’i Principles all of his life and lived by them, artistic liberties aside.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=855979132 Nadema Agard

    As a Native American, I feel that it is just the American version of Orientalism except you can call it Native Americanism. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=855979132 Nadema Agard

    As a Native American, I feel that it is just the American version of Orientalism except you can call it Native Americanism. 

    Nadema Agard       Winyan Luta/Red Woman
    Literal translation Woman Holy Red in the Lakota Language

    • Karridine

       Interesting… ‘Winyan’ is ‘spirit’ or ‘life-spirit’ in modern Thai (a Sanskrit-based language)

      Language, the thumb for grasping with the ‘hand’ of the mind, unites us SO WIDELY as humans…

  • Talismanart

    Native Americans are still stereotyped, romanticized and sometimes even hated, but worst of all is the propaganda that we are a people of the past. We remain invisible to the majority and are only recognized when we wear feathers and deerskin. Nothing much has changed.

    • Karridine

       ’Nothing much has changed.’ … for MOST of the people, MOST of the time, but others among humankind have worked to know, to see, to meet, to work with and -above all- to live with THE HUMANS around them, including those of Amerindian descent…

      After a year of ‘wasichu’, I was de facto ‘one of us’, although there was no formal ceremony… there is MUCH work to be done

  • Kim

    Romanticized views of Indians are not helpful to the people. Mr. Brush’s art work is technically excellent, and therefore lovely to look at from that point. America’s shameful past that includes taking this land away from the Native Americans should not be forgotten for the sake of a white man’s talent with paint and brushes. If America is to be a leader in the realization of World Peace, we must reconcile with the Native Americans, who live off government welfare and are among the poorest in our nation.

  • Neil

    I would like to know about the art by Native Americans themselves. Isn’t that of some inportance? Would not the known artists of American Indians have at least studied that?
     

  • Ananda

    I like how George Brush contrasts so many of his depictions of Native Americans next to something pure and white, like a swan, or clouds, or snow.  He may have been trying to convey his understanding of Native people’s spirituality.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1582098095 Charlotte Solarz

    No! I do not like this –Brush may be a product of his day — a member of the self given privileges of the ”la ti da!” elite … he is given to assessments  of “other”that come from that vanity.  Of course there are many like that today. It’s Old Order, all to be rolled up.  Good news? There is a good counter balance to this, and worthy of all  trials and errors made as we climb that difficult mountain called Patience. 

  • Daljwlallpal

    As a non Baha’i living in England this blog has given me the opportunity to have some understanding of Abdu’l-Baha’s presence in the world. It has given me more insight than I felt possible, the subjects covered are highly sensitive and currant even today.
    This will definnately attract the interest of people like me the want to know and understand people.
    Graphics beautiful
    Thankyou for all your hard work.
    Anne little

  • Susan Bentler

    The article does make the point that romanticizing a group of people we have’t taken time to fully understand is not the same as actual respect. Just as ‘Abdul Baha rose above the limited notions of Orientalism in His time, the reality of native people is beyond mere projection or fantasy. I am glad this article made the apt comparison of the two art genres.