The Objects Lab at the Ford Center recently treated a interesting frame for a painting of Logan Fontenelle. It is a large, wooden frame for the portrait by artist William Andrew Mackay. Logan Fontenelle, or Shon-ga-ska (White Horse), was the son of Me-um-bane, the daughter of chief Big Elk, and Lucien Fontenelle, a French-American fur trader from New Orleans. He served an important role as a trusted interpreter for the Omaha during treaty negotiations. Whites considered him the last ruling chief of the Omaha Tribe, though he was not considered a chief by the Omaha themselves.
The painting and frame were commissioned by the Colonial Dames group of Omaha as a gift to the newly built Hotel Fontenelle. The Colonial Dames had reached out to portrait artist Cecelia Beaux to create the painting. Due to its large size and the fact that it was a full-body portrait with Fontenelle in traditional Native American dress, Beaux recommended they hire William Andrew Mackay who had worked previously on similar portraits. As luck would have it, Mackay’s father had met Logan Fontenelle in Omaha in 1855. In a letter which accompanied the delivery of the painting, he passed along his father’s approval: “Just before shipping the canvas I had my father look at it again. He told me that the coloring and features were those of Fontenelle and that the position carried with it the same dignity that marked our Indian hero in life.”
The portrait of Logan Fontenelle by William Andrew Mackay in the frame designed by Thomas R. Kimball. This picture is before treatment.
According to Museum Records, the frame was carved by Thomas R. Kimball who was the architect of the Hotel Fontenelle in Omaha where the frame and painting were displayed. It was presented to the Hotel Fontenelle in Omaha in 1916, where it remained on public view until sometime in the 1950s. Kimball is also known for being the architect of the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in 1898 and St Cecelia’s Cathedral in Omaha in 1905.
The frame is composed of an inner frame and an outer frame, both of which have surfaces embellished with composition and wooden ornaments. These ornaments include spears, spearheads, feathers, fleur de lis, and the Fontenelle family coat of arms which represent his Native American and French ancestry. A wooden panel with text written about Logan Fontanelle is on the back side, indicating that both sides were intended to be visible.
The back side of the frame with text about Logan Fontenelle. The text is below.
In gold-toned letters, the following is written:
“Fontenelle / Scion of a noble family of Old France / son of an Indian mother, friend / of the white man, teacher of civili/zation, respecter of treaties, promot/er of peace. Whose wisdom and fearlessness made him chief of the /tribe that gave its name to this great / city. Whose unmarked grave lies south/ward in the silent wooded hills / toward which the Missouri’s waters / flow, but Whose monument this/building is-typifying in its rug/ged strength as it reaches upward his aspiring sterling qualities, his / persevering patient nature born / of his Indian blood-symbolizing in its adorning Gothic crown his grace of heart, his courtliness / of manner, his adventurous spirit, / bequests of his proud French an/cestors. Thus his nature high and / daring through the fusion of French / and Indian blood is expressed in / this building which bears his name /–Fontenelle– Logan Fontenelle-a true Brave in birth, in life, in death!”
In 1919, anthropologist Melvin Gilmore wrote an article criticizing the portrait’s inscription. Gilmore argued that while Fontenelle had played an important and respected role as interpreter, the Omaha had not regarded him as a chief or tribal member according to their customs. Gilmore based his remarks on interviews with Omaha elders who remembered Fontenelle. (See Melvin Randolph Gilmore, “The True Logan Fontenelle,” Publications of the Nebraska State Historical Society, Vol. 19 (1919), 64-71.)
Detail of frame during treatment in which the right side of the frame had been cleaned.
When it came to the Ford Center, the frame was structurally sound, but exhibited many other problems. In some areas, the gold leaf was flaking off and in need of consolidation before more original material was lost. The faces of many gilded feather and arrowhead ornaments had been knocked off, revealing the beige-colored composition material below. There were deep gouges, scratches, and drill holes in the frame’s surface. Brush strokes of bronze overpaint, once painted on to cover up areas of gilding loss, had oxidized over the years leaving black streaks. The gilded frame rails were covered in a thick layer of dirt and soot, with distracting residues from the past one hundred years marring the surface.
Technician Vonnda Shaw vacuums the interior of the frame.
After digitally documenting the condition of the frame, treatment was underway. The goal of the treatment was to stabilize the surface, and to bring the frame’s appearance closer to what it once was when it was first commissioned.
The lifting gold leaf was consolidated, and then the surface was vacuumed overall, using a soft bristle brush to direct particulate matter into the vacuum nozzle. After carrying out extensive testing, conservators determined a cleaning solution that could be safely used on the surface to remove the thick grime and distracting residues. This was carried out using cotton poultices in some areas, and swabs in others. For this large, double-sided object, the process ended up taking over twenty hours.
Ford Center intern Kayla cleans the grime from side of the frame. The area at the top has been cleaned and the bottom has not.
Once the surface had been stabilized and cleaned, the next step was aesthetic compensation. Replacement ornaments were made both by hand and by casting epoxy putty into silicon rubber molds of intact ornament. Gouges, drill holes, and losses were filled and then smoothed with fine tools. Reproduction ornaments and fills were then visually integrated using resins mixed with pigments, mica powders, and metallic powders.
Objects Conservator Rebecca Cashman adds fills to the decorative feather motif on the frame.
The conserved condition of the frame was documented with digital photography, and the painting was returned to the frame.
After this conservation treatment, the surface of the frame is now stable and the piece more closely resembles what it did one hundred years ago, when it commissioned for the Hotel Fontenelle. By returning the frame to its former glory, Logan Fontenelle’s legacy lives on for future generations.
Fontenelle Frame after treatment, but before painting has been reframed.
(Posted 8/1/2018; updated 8/18/2022, correcting a statement about Fontenelle being an Omaha chief and adding the paragraph about Melvin Gilmore’s article.)