In 1882, after nearly six years of rigorous academic training in the studio of Jean-Léon Gérôme and at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, George de Forest Brush traveled to Wyoming, where he spent several months among the Arapahoe and Shoshone, completing a number of detailed studies of the people he met. Later that year, he journeyed north, where he spent at least eight additional months among the Crow in Montana. During the following decade Brush produced a remarkable series of paintings of American Indians based on these experiences.
An Arapahoe Boy is one of only two life studies known to survive from Brush's trip to Wyoming. Fresh from years of study focused on the human face and figure, he skillfully captured the direct gaze and self-assured presence of the young Indian boy. Clearly intrigued by the details of the boy's breastplate, necklace, and fur-wrapped braids, Brush displayed his technical expertise in rendering the varied textures of hair, shell, and fur. This painting shows Brush at his best—both as a skilled portraitist and as one of the most important interpreters of the American Indian in nineteenth-century American art.
Brush originally gave An Arapahoe Boy to the American anthropologist Erminnie Adelle Platt Smith (1836–1886), whose name he inscribed in the lower right corner of the painting. Smith, a pioneer in the field of ethnology, was the first woman elected to membership in the New York Academy of Sciences. In 1880 she received an appointment in the Bureau of American Ethnology, Smithsonian Institution, where she worked with John Wesley Powell. Three years later, she met George de Forest Brush, just back from Montana, when both served on the "aboriginal art committee" for a benefit exhibition held to raise money for installation of the Statue of Liberty.