Thursday, February 7, 2013

Camouflage Artist | Gerome Brush

Sherry Fry, Portrait Bust of Gerome Brush (c1910)

Gerome Brush (informally referred to as “Gerry” or “Jerry”) was born in New York on March 11, 1888. His father was a well-known American painter, George de Forest Brush, while his mother, Mittie Taylor Brush, was a sculptor, inventor and pioneering aviator. He is sometimes mistakenly cited as “Jerome” Brush, but his actual name was Gerome, a tribute to French painter Jean-Léon Gérome, his father’s famous teacher at the Écoles des Beaux-Arts. 

Much of what is known about Brush and his family members, as well as others who were part of the artists colony in Dublin, New Hamphire (where the family spent their summers), is due to the efforts of his sister, Nancy Douglas Bowditch (née Nancy Brush), who wrote a memoir of her father, titled George de Forest Brush: Recollections of a Joyous Painter (1970). Later, she also donated her papers to the Archives of American Art, including two interviews in which she talked at length about her parents, her siblings, friends and others. 

Gerome Brush learned about painting and sculpture from his father, and by working with others in Europe and the US. Among his early influences was the painter Abbott Handerson Thayer, who was a lifelong friend of his father, as well as their neighbor in Dublin. Although somewhat younger, Gerome was in close contact with other young artists who studied and lived in the vicinity of Dublin, Keene and Cornish (location of the studio of Augustus Saint-Gaudens), New Hampshire, among them muralist Barry Faulkner, sculptor Sherry Edmundson Fry, and painter-naturalist Gerald Thayer (Abbott Thayer’s son). Bird artist and naturalist Louis Agassiz Fuertes (a Thayer student and devotee) was a frequent and favorite visitor to the Brush family’s summer home. 

In Dublin, among the Brushes’ neighbors was Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), whose youngest daughter Jean was prone to terrible seizures. Among Jean Clemens’ closest friends was Nancy Brush, and entries from Jean’s diary from 1906 confirm her romantic interest in Gerome Brush. But nothing came of it, and three years later, while no longer living in Dublin, Jean died, apparently during a seizure, while taking a bath. 

In the early 1890s, Abbott Thayer had begun to write about the survival advantage of protective coloration (or animal camouflage), and in 1898, coincident with the Spanish-American War, he and George de Forest Brush approached the US Navy with a proposal for camouflaging ships. Apparently precocious, the young Gerome Brush was also involved in this research, and in 1902, at the age of only fourteen, he and Abbott Thayer were jointly granted a patent for a “Process of Treating the Outside of Ships, etc., For Making Them Less Visible” (U.S. Patent No. 715013). The Spanish-American War having ended in 1898, the same year it began, there was no on-going conflict, and camouflage was not an urgent concern. 

In 1913, Gerome Brush married a New York actress named Louise Seymour. According to his sister Nancy, Gerome “who was beginning to make a name for himself as a sculptor, had also become interested in working at a settlement house there [in New York]—coaching boys in a dramatic club—and thus he met Louise, who was occupied in the same work.” In celebration of the marriage, Gerome’s parents took the newlywed couple and the Brushes’ several daughters (with the exception of Nancy) to Europe for an extended visit, and particularly to Florence, Italy. They left in November 1913 and lived overseas for nearly a year, but they had to return to the US in October 1914, because of the increasing dangers of World War I. 

On their return voyage, among their fellow passengers (according to Nancy Brush) “were Enrico Caruso and some of the Metropolitan Opera Company. They were full of fun and kept all the others so entertained that they didn’t have time to think about the danger [of being attacked]. They sang and played tricks on each other and had games together like so many gay children. One day Mother [Mittie Taylor Brush] looked up in surprise at her cabin window to see peering in at her the beaming face of Caruso with a lady’s hat on.

The following month, the New York Times reported that the great Caruso had dropped in at the Knoedler Galleries, to purchase an exquisite portrait that Gerome Brush had painted of his beautiful wife Louise. 

It was not until 1917 that the US entered World War I, joining the side of the Allies. Given the astonishing success with which British ships were being sunk by German submarines (called U-boats), the question of making Allied merchant ships less visible (or at least harder to target) became a paramount issue. American artists and others were encouraged to submit proposals for ship camouflage, and Gerome Brush was among those who responded.

Gerome Brush camouflage plan (not based on countershading)

In late 1917, the US Navy (working with the US Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation) officially gave its approval to six ship camouflage systems, named after their originators, including (artists) Gerome Brush, William Andrew MacKay, Lewis Herzog, Everett L. Warner, F.M. Watson, and (chemist) Maximillian Toch. For the rest of the war, according to Nancy Brush, her brother Gerome (along with other artists) was involved in supervising “the painting of merchant ships all along the eastern seaboard. He worked at Norfolk, Virginia, Boston Harbor, New York Harbor, and many other places. He trained men to do the painting according to Mr. [Abbott] Thayer’s theory [of countershading, in which] the color scheme for the ships was taken from the general coloring of a seagull, worked in two shades of gray and pure white, the underpart of everything being white.” 

In 1919, Gerome Brush was granted a second patent for ship camouflage, titled “System for Reducing the Visibility of Objects” (US Patent No. 1296753). His interest in camouflage evidently continued after the war, or perhaps it was rekindled by World War II, because in 1943, he was granted a third patent related to ship camouflage, titled “Method for Preventing Wake Formation” (US Patent 2414632). 

After WWI, Brush’s career as an artist can only have declined. Surely, his artwork (like that of his pre-Modern parents and friends) was all but dismissed as outmoded. As his parents aged, Gerome and his wife made increased visits to their home, in part because Louise was preparing a book about his father’s life. Unfortunately, in 1937, his father’s studio, artworks, papers and other irreplaceable artifacts (including Louise’s manuscript) were destroyed in a fire. 

Eventually, Gerome and Louise Brush moved away from Dublin (although their gravestones are located there) and settled in Brookline, Massachusetts. He appears to have painted portraits, sculpted portrait busts, and created murals for the Children’s Hospital in Boston. In the 1930s, he made detailed charcoal portraits of 109 members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In 1936, these were published as a book, titled The Boston Symphony Orchestra: Charcoal Drawings of Its Members with Biographical Sketches. In a foreword by Edward Weeks, his process is described as follows: “Each musician sat for him in the little room that houses the Casadesus Collection [of historic musical instruments]; each played for him a solo in order to banish the last vestige of self-consciousness, and from each he has drawn comments, bits of personal history, and the gleam of aspirations which are characteristic.” 

Gerome Brush died in Lincoln, Massachusetts, on September 13, 1954.

Behrens, Roy R., False Colors: Art, Design and Modern Camouflage. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books, 2002.
_______, Camoupedia: A Compendium of Research in Art, Architecture and Camouflage. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books, 2009.
_______, ed. Ship Shape: A Dazzle Camouflage Sourcebook. Dysart, Iowa: Bobolink Books, 2012.
Bowditch, Nancy Douglas, George de Forest Brush: Recollections of a Joyous Painter. Peterborough, New Hampshire: William L. Bauhan, 1970.
Brush, Gerome, The Boston Symphony Orchestra: Charcoal Drawings of Its Members with Biographical Sketches. Boston: Boston Symphony Orchestra, 1936.
“Caruso Buys Painting” in New York Times. November 25, 1914.
“Gerome Brush” (obituary) in New York Times. September 15, 1954, p. 33.
Lystra, Karen, Dangerous Intimacy: The Untold Story of Mark Twain’s Final Years. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

© Roy R. Behrens

book sources & historic prints & photographs