One of the most important Native American artists of the early 20th century was born in Nebraska. Angel DeCora was born on May 3, 1871, on the Winnebago Reservation. DeCora grew up in a time of significant transition in indigenous life in the United States. At the time of her birth, the Winnebago Tribe was forced off their land and resettled elsewhere, and indigenous people everywhere were reckoning with the dominant Anglo-American culture while trying to preserve their customs and traditions. DeCora was sent to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia at the age of 12 and was thus separated from her family and tribal traditions at an impressionable age.
While at Hampton, DeCora developed the artistic skills that would lead to her future profession. She was encouraged in her artistic pursuits, and after graduation she enrolled in the art department at Smith College in 1892. She continued her studies at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia where she studied under Howard Pyle, a noted illustrator. He directed DeCora to do studies on Native American life, and she spent the summer of 1897 at the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. Inspired by Pyle’s teaching, she wrote and illustrated two works based on her childhood, “The Sick Child” and “Grey Wolf’s Daughter,” which were both published in Harper’s in 1899. She continued her studies in Boston and opened a studio. In her illustrations, DeCora sought to translate indigenous customs and lifestyles into and through Western and European artistic traditions.
DeCora’s work was distinct from other illustrators of her day. Because she was originally trained as an easel painter, her works have the look of fully developed oil paintings rather than sketches. She confronted head-on the transitions happening within indigenous societies brought on by outside economic and educational forces. DeCora also highlighted women as subjects in her work. While her contemporaries focused on dramatic stories of Native Americans as warriors or hunters, DeCora depicted the quiet strength of women in domestic spaces. Finally, DeCora’s work emphasized the facial features of her subjects. She gave her figures individuality that was lacking in the illustrated work of other artists of her day.
In 1906, Angel DeCora was appointed instructor of arts at the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Like Hampton, Carlisle was a boarding school where Native American children were taken from their tribes and taught how to assimilate into white, western culture. She was hired at a pivotal time when Carlisle was transitioning away from removing all traditional culture from the student’s lives. DeCora stated that she would only take the position if, “I shall not be expected to teach in the white man’s ways, but shall be given complete liberty to develop the art of my own race and apply this, as far as possible, to various forms of art, industries and crafts.” Through art, she strove to give her students a sense of pride in their culture and history. Her position at Carlisle and her regular speaking engagements throughout the country mark the first time the government recognized the importance of indigenous artistic traditions in American art.
DeCora left Carlisle in 1915 and continued work as an illustrator. She died of pneumonia and influenza in 1919, leaving behind a generation of Native American students with a greater appreciation and understanding of their artistic heritage.
Kenneth Bé, paintings conservator, treated a painting of Angel DeCora’s from 1903. The untitled scene shows an indigenous woman in a traditional interior. Typical of DeCora’s work, the piece shows great care toward the design motifs on the painted skins and beadwork on the woman’s garments. The painting is in the collection of the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney. The painting is oil on canvas.
Before treatment, the composition of the painting is greatly obscured by the dirt and darkened varnish layer.
When it came to the Ford Center, the stretcher was brittle and fractured in places. There was a 1” tear in the canvas and several old punctures that had been mended in the past. The canvas was slack and cracks in the paint had formed throughout. The paint had distorted and curled — “cupped” — in between the cracks. The varnish had oxidized and was deeply discolored to a dark yellow. Dirt and grime had accumulated, contributing to the darkening of the painting.
During treatment, the canvas was removed from the old stretcher and flattened. On the right, part of the varnish has been removed and shows the extent of the discoloration.
After these ‘before treatment’ photographs were taken, the painting was removed from the original stretcher and set on the heated suction table to reduce the paint cupping and crack ridges. The canvas was lined to a new polyester support canvas.
After treatment, the dark varnish has been removed and the clarity of DeCora’s composition can be fully appreciated.
Angel DeCora (c. 1868 Dakota County (now Thurston County), Nebraska – 1919 Northampton, Massachusetts)
Untitled (interior scene)
oil on linen
20 x 24”
28 1/4 x 32 1/4” framed
Museum Purchase made possible by Cliff Art Endowment
Conservation made possible by Lavern Clark Endowment
The painting was cleaned and the discolored varnish layer was removed. The cleaned, lined painting was attached to a new custom-ordered wooden stretcher. A fresh varnish layer was applied and local paint losses were filled and retouched with pigments.