While on delegation business in Washington, D.C., in 1855, Aysh-ke-bah-ke-ko-zhay, together with his colleague, Besheekee, sat for a portrait in clay by sculptor Francis Vincenti, who was then working on decorations for the extension to the U.S. Capitol. Seth Eastman, a U.S. Army artist then assigned to the Indian Bureau, brought the two Native American leaders to the Capitol. A key purpose of the portraits was to provide lead sculptor Thomas Crawford with realistic models for depictions of Native Americans in sculptural groups. Aysh-ke-bah-ke-ko-zhay was probably about 81 years old when he posed for Vincenti.
Vincenti’s treatment of Aysh-ke-bah-ke-ko-zhay–unlike his bust of Besheekee–is primarily descriptive of appearance, less concerned with the animating spirit. The eyeballs are blank, not drilled; the mouth benign; and great attention has been given to the grand nose and curiously emphatic lower lip that, one assumes, gave the chief his nickname. The upper ears are slit and simply ornamented. His blanket is also more simply conceived than that of Besheekee, and the horizontal turban would not particularly attract the eye were it not for the startling braidlike material that appears to gush like a fountain from both sides of the turban. The young Capitol sculptor Lot Flannery years later recalled seeing Vincenti at work on this bust–-both as it was being modeled during sittings at Wren’s Hotel and then as it was being carved about 1855.
In addition to what has been written about Vincenti in the entry on
, a few facts or surmises may be added to his brief history. His Italian first name was probably Francesco. He is known to have worked on the Capitol decorations from 1853 to 1858. For his work on the two portrait busts he was paid six dollars a day from building construction funds. Though this might seem an inconsequential reward (Sarah Ames, for example, would be paid $1,500 for her bust of Lincoln just 12 years later), it should be understood that Vincenti was being paid as an exceptionally skilled artisan, not as an artist. Captain Montgomery C. Meigs, superintendent of the Capitol extension, confirms this in a letter written to Vincenti on October 17, 1854. The letter, apparently in response to Vincenti’s proposal to travel to Italy to import additional skilled stonecutters for work on the Capitol, states: “Let them understand that skillful workmen get from $2.50 to $2.75 per day of ten hours work, and that this is to be the inducement....”
Compared with those wages, Vincenti was well paid.
After his work on the Capitol, Vincenti went south to Richmond, Virginia, where he worked for the Richmond-born Edward Valentine for a time. Some years later, Valentine reported encountering Vincenti in Paris. Vincenti may have been among the many stone carvers and sculptors who worked on Parisian projects ordered by Napoleon III and his Prefect Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, particularly the new opera house that was constructed and decorated between mid-1861 and 1869.
For many years, the identities of both the subject and the artist of this bust remained unknown. Early in the 20th century, the architect of the Capitol conferred with anthropologists at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Inquiries among elderly Ojibwa in Minnesota confirmed the bust as a portrait of Aysh-ke-bah-ke-ko-zhay, whose turban and pierced ears with silver pendants indicated an Ojibwa man of high rank. At the same time, sculptor Flannery relayed his memories of Vincenti working. With the bust’s identity confirmed, the architect provided a suitable marble pedestal.
1. Charles E. Fairman,Art and Artists of the Capitol of the United States of America(Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1927), 151.