Born in Tennessee in 1855 and raised in Connecticut, George de Forest Brush went on to study at the National Academy of Design in New York from 1870 to 1874. With his friend and fellow artist, Abbott Thayer, Brush traveled to Paris for more formal training in the atelier of Jean-Léon Gérôme. After a period of six years abroad, Brush happily accepted an invitation from his brother, Alfred, to visit Wyoming, welcoming the opportunity to travel to new territories and to seek out fresh subject matter. By the winter of 1881, the two brothers had settled near Fort Washakie, Wyoming, where the artist would concentrate on his painting while living among the Shoshone and Arapahoe tribes. Shortly thereafter Brush moved north to Montana to live with the Crow Indians in Montana. During this time he contributed views of Native American life to Harper's and Century magazines, receiving recognition for his images of "the world of the Indian before the white man came, an idealized Indian that never was." (P. and H. Samuels, Encyclopedia of Artists of the American West, p. 72)
Council of the War Party (or Before the Battle) was executed in 1886 and depicts a group of Crow Indians set against the expansive landscape of the High Plains. The tribe elder stands at right offering guidance to the younger members standing and listening attentively. Although the focus of the scene is clearly on this interaction, Brush has added other figural groups to lead the viewer through this complete and thoughtfully rendered scene. Two Crow Indians at right prepare each other with war paint and a lone figure crouches in the middleground readying his bow while a figure on a rearing horse enters from right. Brush completes the scene with a long line of figures stretched along the background mountain stream visually leading to an outcropping of tribe members standing on the hilltop. Smoke signals extend from both the near and far hills and the gentle slope of the landscape extends down from the right to left giving the impression of a continuing expanse beyond the canvas.
Brush has rendered the present work with a mastery of light and detail that both pays tribute to the customs of his Native American subjects and expresses a reverence for their land. A distinctly western light pervades the scene that lends a sense of overall calm. Brush has skillfully highlighted the contours of each figure with touches of evening light and expertly added a strip of brilliant low lying sunlight beneath the clouds on the horizon. In addition to this adept use of light, Brush has thoughtfully detailed each figure, paying careful attention to the dress and distinct hairstyles of the Crow tradition. Brush was sensitively aware of how his contemporaries had rendered similar scenes and felt he was in a unique position to capture an authentic glimpse of a fleeting life on the Plains. Rather than concentrate on the dramatic poses of the Native American clinging to a perceived identity, Brush treats his subjects with both a romantic rendering as well as a sympathetic understanding of the culture. "The conflict that Remington, Russell, and Schreyvogel portrayed is distant from this world, where survival appears to depend on the continuity of customs far removed from white civilization." (J. Schimmel, The West Explored: The Gerald Peters Collection of Western American Art, Santa Fe, 1988, p. 60) Council of the War Party is conceived with an integrity and introspection that would distinguish Brush from his peers. Brush commented that "in choosing Indians as subjects for art, I do not paint from the historian's or the antiquary's point of view; I do not care to represent them in any curious habits which could not be comprehended by us; I am interested in those habits and deeds in which we have feelings in common. Therefore, I hesitate to attempt to add any interest to my pictures by supplying historical facts. If I were required to resort to this in order to bring out the poetry, I would drop the subject at once." (N.D. Bowditch, George de Forest Brush: Recollections of a Joyous Painter, Peterborough, New Hampshire, 1970, p. 24)
With its reflective mood and expansive composition, Council of the War Party represents Brush's homage to the Plains Indian. He has depicted his figures with a heroic monumentality calling attention to the harmony between native people and nature. Placed prominently in the foreground, the figures stand tall above the horizon line, confidently poised. The taut musculature has been skillfully rendered by Brush with fine detail and contoured light and form. "Brush's treatment of the physiques in [Council of the War Party] reflects both the influence of Gérome and Brush's belief that the figures of Indians were comparable to those of the ancient Greeks. By comparing Indians to the Greeks, Brush was looking at them as New World equivalents of classic types." (B.W. Chambers, George de Forest Brush: Master of the American Reinaissance, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1985, p. 19) Painted during a relatively brief period from 1881 to 1890, Brush produced a limited number of works depicting Native Americans. Council of the War Party stands as an artistic and triumph from one of America's most distinguished and thoughtful artists of the genre.
In 1907 Charles H. Caffin captured the emotion of Brush's series of Native American paintings. "He found material for a story, archaeology, and strangeness in the North American Indians; and food for his imagination by discovering in their present condition a clue to their past. He attempted to recreate the spacious, empty world in which they lived a life that was truly primitive, unmixed with the alloy of the white man's bringing; and to interpret not only the externals of their life, but its inwardness...In these Indian pictures, far too few in number...the imagination revealed is deep and elevated, and no one has approached him in the completeness with which he has suggested the solemn romance of these primitive conditions." (The Story of American Painting, New York, 1907)