George de Forest Brush – American Master (1855 – 1941)

By Walt Schnabel
In the introduction to George de Forest Brush: Recollections of a Joyous Painter by Nancy Douglas Bowditch, the distinguished landscape painter, Charles H. Davis, is quoted as saying: “A successful artist is like a three legged stool. He must have three essential qualities to support him: talent, character and industry. He may succeed partially with any two, but for complete success he must have all three.” Bowditch writes that Dublin artist, and great American painter, George de Forest Brush was the personification of Davis’s statement. Author Nancy Bowditch was both Brush’s daughter and his student.

George de Forest Brush was born in Shelbyville, Tennessee, on September 28, 1855. His parents, Alfred Clark Brush and Nancy Douglas Brush, were born in New England but moved to Tennessee a few years before his birth. George was the second of three children; his older brother was named Alfred and his younger sister, Lillie. Brush’s middle name came from his father’s grandmother, Elizabeth de Forest.

In 1856, his family moved to Danbury, Connecticut, where Alfred Brush became a prosperous businessman. Brush’s mother was a self-taught artist who encouraged him in his artistic and musical endeavors. George was not a healthy child and thus did not attend school regularly. His education was provided by his mother who read prose and poetry to him, took him to museums, and fostered his natural love of drawing. In later life, when asked how he became an artist, he replied, “I guess I was always an artist. I began drawing when I was four or five and never stopped.”

Brush was sent to New York in 1870 to study with Lemuel Wilmarth at the National Academy of Design. Among Wilmarth’s other students at the time was a young artist named Abbott Thayer, who reappears later in Brush’s life. Brush attended the academy for three winters where he developed his technical skill of drawing human anatomy.

George Brush arrived in Paris in 1874 at the age of 19. He found a room in the Latin Quarter and immersed himself in the sights and sounds of the area. George enrolled in classes with Jean-Leon Gerome, considered to be the finest French painter of the time. He returned to America only once in the next six years to attend the funeral of his mother who had died from eating a poison mushroom.

Upon his return to America in 1880, Brush undertook a portrait of his father as one of his first projects. The painting uses dramatic lighting to emphasize the features and expressions of the face. In the stern expression, the personality of a practical-minded businessman is clear. The elder Brush, however, viewed his son’s career choice with disdain, which developed into an estrangement that lasted until his father’s death in 1908.

In 1881, George agreed to accompany his brother Alfred out west where he planned to establish a ranch. They spent time with the Shoshone people when their deadly enemies, the Arapahoe, were being overseen by government troops. He also visited the Crow and, 40 years later, 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. During this period of time, George began a series of paintings that didn’t merely depict Indian life but were an interpretation of their philosophy. These scenes helped to incorporate the Native American into the mythology of America. Some of these were sold as illustrations to Harper’s Weekly and Century magazines.

When George returned from out west he stopped doing paintings with western themes. While there is no definitive explanation for this, one offered by his youngest daughter, Thea Cabot, makes sense: “He was heartbroken by how the Indians were treated by the government…these Indians were his friends and after seeing what had happened to them he couldn’t paint them anymore.”

In 1885, George and his brother Alfred rented a piece of ground on a farm in New York State. George had learned how to build a teepee when he was out west. This served as their summer home and attracted quite a bit of attention from the local mansion dwellers. It was there that he met Mary Taylor (Mittie) Whelpley, whom he had been forbidden to court as her mother considered him an unconventional and unfit suitor by her mother. On January 11, 1886, George and Mittie eloped – it was her 20th birthday.

After spending two years in Canada, George and Mittie Brush returned to America and spent the summer in a teepee in Cornish, New Hampshire, in a field owned by the sculptor, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Beginning in 1892, Brush spent three consecutive summers in Cornish. Every Sunday, a group would meet in his studio to discuss social reforms. These types of issues concerned him throughout his life.

After the birth of his fourth daughter, Mary, in 1898, Brush moved his family to France, then to Florence. This is where Brush began his Mother and Child portraits using his wife and children as models. These paintings constituted a major part of his output and reflected important changing sociological concepts, which glorified motherhood and exalted the American woman.

The Brush family came to Dublin, New Hampshire, in 1898, settling next to Abbott Thayer. Brush was given the use of a barn studio by Joseph Lindon Smith who lived nearby on Dublin Lake. In 1901, Brush purchased the Townsend Farm in Dublin, which eventually became the family’s permanent home. Its proximity to wealthy Dublin families led to portrait commissions. A tremendous amount of labor was required to maintain the farm, an artist’s career, and a large family – a family that now consisted of one boy and six girls. Whenever financially possible, Brush would pack up the entire family and move them abroad to a warmer climate where he could get better help.

During WWI, Brush began working on a practical application for Abbott Thayer’s studies on protective coloration. He purchased a small monoplane to try out the notion of camouflage. He and his wife, Mittie, a skilled pilot, were working to create an “invisibility” effect. She was also an inventor who is credited with a number of devices for airplanes.

In the 1920s, the demand for Brush’s art was greater than ever. One of his large paintings, At the Fountain, sold for $18,000 to an American collector. At the time, it was the highest price ever paid for a painting by a living American artist. Brush held his first one-man exhibition at the Century Club in New York in 1922.

During the last decade of his life, Brush remained primarily in Dublin, giving up his studio in New York. When he was 82, a grass fire spread to his Dublin studio destroying it and its valuable contents. Near the end of his life, Brush became very quiet–often sitting for hours in the small garden behind his house. He had enjoyed his life, spending most of the $500,000 he had earned over the course of his lifetime. Brush’s last paintings were small portraits of his wife and grandchildren. George de Forest Brush passed away on April 24, 1941, at the age of 85. His beloved Mittie joined him in 1949.

For all of his emphasis on civility, Brush was an unconventional and restless person, uprooting his family, time and again, to seek artistic and perhaps spiritual inspiration in Europe. He was an immensely curious person whose interests went well beyond painting into the fields of ethnology, literature, music, drama, costume, and aviation. More importantly, he was a dedicated husband and father who always found time in his busy schedule for his family. His circle of friends included sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, painters Abbott Thayer and Barry Faulkner, geologist Raphael Pumpelly, archaeologist Joseph Lindon Smith, and writer Mark Twain. The intellectual stimulation provided by these people was passed on to his children and his students. He believed that internal balance was the most important human quality as it would cause external forces to be brought into harmony. The resulting peace is the basis for the brilliance of the art he created.

George de Forest Brush: Master of the American Renaissance, Berry-Hill Gallery, New York, 1985
George de Forest Brush: Recollections of a Joyous Painter by Nancy Douglas Bowditch
Photo of George de Forest Brush on the introduction page is reprinted from Barry Faulkner: Sketches from An Artist’s Life (1973) with permission of William L. Bauhan, Publisher, Dublin, NH.