George de Forest Brush

As a sidebar to the gargantuan new "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" show, 21 paintings of American Indians by George de Forest Brush occupy two smaller, lower galleries at SAM. A contemporary of Northwest photographer Edward S. Curtis, Brush (1855-1941) came later to the Indian theme, but displays the same romantic—and not always historically accurate—tendencies. His subjects occupy idealized patches of wilderness, hunting free in grasslands and lakes not yet despoiled by the white man. His serene canvases look backward, before the Indian wars and reservations. There is no Trail of Tears, and the influence of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans is strongly felt. A Southerner who trained in Paris then returned to the U.S., Brush renders our continent’s original residents (and owners) as noble savages. The images are dangerously close to van murals, but there’s a strangeness that pulls them back from kitsch. Brush’s nature scenes, often with Audubon-style birds in them, have an under-glass airlessness to them. They’re specimens of something extinct, a way of life that disappeared during his own lifetime. Brush drew from life, as these paintings show. I prefer the smaller adjacent gallery of Indian heads and facial sketches—the preliminary portraiture before Brush inserted these figures into a landscape from which, in truth, they had already been removed. (Closed Mon.) BRIAN MILLER

March 12-May 24, 10 a.m., 2009

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