Institutional Historian , Lewis-Clark State College, Lewiston, Idaho
Lacking provenance, a treasure easily becomes bric-à-brac, a thingamabob, a doohickey. And thus, it was for two beautiful, unattested marble sculptures in a small Idaho collection.
Salvaged in May 1965 during the razing of an old bank, the rondels remained in a local artist’s basement until 1974. The county museum reluctantly accepted the unidentified, orphaned pair in their original frames and banished them to an Indiana Jones storage. The staff would not risk a display catastrophe for unknown goods weighing 75 pounds each.
The Nez Perce County Historical Museum suffers from a malady familiar to all collections: too little space and too many artifacts. During a 2017 spring cleaning, the accessions committee finally tagged the bas-reliefs “to be discarded” but hesitated until this author had the opportunity to examine them in the light of day.
Everyone agreed that the city landfill would not be the solution for our uncertainty. Could the history of the marbles be rescued? Could I find them a new and loving home?
Marble Sculpture Mystery’s First Clue
The crucial clue was in plain sight ̶ “M. Colby. Sculpt.” The internet was initially flummoxed. Three years of reweaving disconnected data has finally produced a surprising result.
Born of New Hampshire stock in April 1841, Madison Colby enlisted with the 21st Massachusetts Infantry in July 1861, fighting at Antietam. He was critically wounded at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and spent many months in military hospitals in Washington, D.C., and Portsmouth, Rhode Island.
After mustering out in 1864, Colby returned to Boston and advertised himself as a portrait painter and sculptor. By 1867, he was working with fellow American stone sculptors Thomas Ball, Hiram Powers, and Larkin Mead in Florence, Italy, returning to Boston in early 1869. He married in October and for health reasons immediately embarked for San Francisco, where he set up his studio in the Mercantile Library Building.
Praises Sung for Colby’s Marble Sculptures
In November 1869, the Snow & Roos Gallery exhibited two works by Colby ̶ “Morning” and “Evening,” which one observer deemed as “deserving attention.” Author and critic Hilda Rosevelt wrote that “they are remarkable for delicacy of finish and pure and clearly-defined conception.”
When the works appeared in the Chicago gallery of Hovey & Heffron in December, the art critic for the Tribune praised them as “exquisite.” The seeds of Colby’s sojourn with Ball, Powers and Mead had fully flowered, so much so that photographs of the marbles were reportedly published.
While the rondels made their way from gallery to gallery, Colby turned his attention to a bust of California author Bret Harte, which was described as “one of the best portraits we have ever seen in sculpture.” The editor of The Art Review (January 1871) continued by saying, “Colby has, in this work, cut, in deep letters, upon the obdurate, adamantine rock of fame, his own name at an equal altitude with that of any American sculptor.” Even Rosevelt, a protegé of Harte, was impressed.
“Morning” and “Evening” returned to San Francisco and to the gallery of Currier and Winter in January 1871.
Art World Loses Sculptor at Early Age
Colby was dying from tuberculosis by the time the Harte bust was completed. He succumbed on 17 February 1871 in Oakland. A letter to The Art Review (May 1871) read in part: “Poor Colby has left a widow without anything save the honor of being the relict [sic] of one so rich in genius and gifts which availed him nothing because of his ill health.”
The last reported exhibition of the rondels took place at the 8th Mechanics’ Institute Fair in September of that year. Colby’s father-in-law, Rev. Thorndike Jameson, submitted them under his own name and won a silver medal.
How Did Marble Sculptures Get to Idaho?
Knowing the identity of “M. Colby. Sculpt.” failed to resolve a second conundrum: how did the rondels make their way to Lewiston, Idaho? The answer lay in knowing how they came to be in the bank.
About 1878, steamboat captain and timber magnate William Smith retired to Lewiston and constructed a new home, considered to be one of the finest in the Pacific Northwest. Building materials, including Italian marble, were shipped around Cape Horn. Spanish cedar, mahogany, and oak were transported from Honduras for the interiors. Smith imported craftsmen to complete the construction. The best evidence points to him as bringing the bas-reliefs into his new mansion.
By 1888, William F. Kettenbach Sr, president of the Lewiston National Bank, had purchased the home. In 1902, his son and heir wanted to improve upon the Second Empire appearance of the house and invested more than $400,000 in today’s value for renovations, which likely saw “Morning” and “Evening” relegated to the walls of his bank, where they would hang until demolition began more than 60 years later. The house became a funeral home in the 1920s and burned to the ground in May 1951.
Why Don’t We Know More About Madison Colby?
Colby’s reputation effectively evaporated, a consequence of his untimely death at age 29, an epic natural disaster, and a misattribution. Colby’s marble sculpture of Harte would perish with the Bohemian Club in the April 1906 San Francisco earthquake but not without a visual vestige of its brilliance.
Well before 1870, San Francisco photographer Silas Wright Selleck had earned an international reputation. He studied in New York as a young man under Louis Daguerre, served as Mathew Brady’s cameraman at the Crystal Palace Exposition in 1851, and later collaborated with Eadweard Muybridge. Colby’s acclaimed effigy was taken to Selleck’s studio on Montgomery Street. The resulting image would be mistakenly cataloged decades later as being statuary by Robert Ingersoll Aitken.
Three additional works by Colby appear in contemporary reports ̶ “Love’s Dream,” “Childhood,” and a bust of Rev. Henry Martyn Scudder, the famed missionary to India. Evidence of their continued existence has yet to surface.
American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote: “Make in your mouths the words that were our names.” After nearly 150 anonymous years, Madison Colby deserves no less.
Madison Colby Marble Sculptures Available for Purchase
Collectors and institutions interested in purchasing the Madison Colby marble sculptures “Morning” and “Evening” should contact Steven Branting at email@example.com for a copy of the complete 19-page provenance study, scaled photographs and/or to initiate negotiations. Each rondel measures 20 inches in diameter and 1.75 inches thick. The works are each housed inside a 28-inch square frame.
Lewiston National Bank, November 1892. Courtesy of the J. Edward Howe Collection
Madison Colby’s signature, obverse of “Evening.” Courtesy of the Branting Archives
“Morning,” by Madison Colby. Courtesy of the Branting Archives
“Evening,” by Madison Colby. Courtesy of the Branting Archives
Colby bust of Bret Harte, 1870. Photograph by Silas Selleck. Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
William F. Kettenbach home, circa 1896-1898. Courtesy of Mary Hauser