A lost masterpiece returns to Montana

The painting by Fra Dana was missing for more than 60 years
Clifford Breeding by Fra Dana
 Montana Museum of Art and Culture Sign
Rafael Chacon
Posted at 5:33 PM, Apr 04, 2023
and last updated 2023-04-04 19:33:31-04

MISSOULA - The Montana Museum of Art and Culture’s (MMAC) new building on the University of Montana campus is set to open in late September.

But museum staff are already busy preparing to move hundreds of works into the new space.

Last year, museum director Rafael Chacon took us into the art vault, where paintings and sculptures were stacked to the ceiling.

“Over the many decades, we’ve lost works,” Chacon said. “Works have gone astray, works have been damaged, destroyed, neglected for long periods.”

The public art collection is the largest of its kind in the state, and as of this week, about half of the art that will be on display is ready.

Rafael Chacon
Montana Museum of Art and Culture museum director Rafael Chacon

One of the museum’s most treasured pieces just made its way back home.

“This is a miracle story,” Chacon said. “For us to recover a work of art that has been missing for at least 60 years maybe even longer than that is really a miracle.”

Chacon received an email last winter from a man in Kentucky, who claimed to have a lost painting that belongs to the museum.

The man said he found a painting belonging to the collection while going through his late father’s estate.

“The story he told me was amazing,” Chacon said. “That his father had purchased the piece in a backyard sale for $25 in Missoula. He didn’t know when and wanted to know if we’re interested in the piece. I said of course we’re interested in the piece.”

Clifford Breeding by Fra Dana
The lost painting ‘Portrait of Clifford Breeding by Fra Dana was recently discovered and returned to the Montana Museum of Art and Culture.

The lost painting was ‘Portrait of Clifford Breeding’ by Fra Dana, and it did belong to the collection. Chacon was shocked when he first saw a photograph of the work.

“I said that’s a Fra Dana, that’s an important piece,” Chacon said. “I started doing a little research and realized it had been at the top of our missing art list for many decades.”

Fra Dana is one of Montana’s best-known impressionist painters. Classically trained, she lived near Great Falls as a rancher in the first half of the 20th century.

MMAC has many of Dana’s works, but Chacon said this returned work is one of her most interesting.

 Montana Museum of Art and Culture Art
Museum studies student Tsea Francisconi preps a masterpiece by Edgar Paxson for the opening of the new Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana.

“He’s a kid living between cultures,” Chacon said. “He might have been a boarding school student, we don't know. We don’t know anything about him, and that’s the next exciting chapter in the story. We are going to try to find out more about William. Who was he, who are his descendants, and what did he mean to Fra Dana?”

The work will be displayed with dozens of other portraits in a special section of the museum. Chacon said he hopes every visitor will have an emotional experience when the doors finally open.

“I think it will be a pretty awesome experience to be surrounded by the richness and depth of this collection,” Chacon said. “I can’t wait for that to happen.”