On May 23, 2009 Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate by Phineas Staunton arrived at the U.S. Capitol on a beautiful, sunlit morning while a small crowd gathered to watch. Over the Memorial Day recess, the painting was installed in the East Brumidi Stairway. Almost 145 years earlier, this monumental painting was shipped from New York to Kentucky to be judged in a competition as the nation emerged from the Civil War.
In 1865 the Kentucky state legislature launched a competition for a 7’ x 11’ portrait of the great statesman Henry Clay to hang in its state capitol. Two artists submitted portraits for consideration: Phineas Staunton of New York and William Frye of Alabama. Among those serving on the selection committee was Henry Clay’s son, John, who voted in favor of Phineas Staunton’s entry. Henry Clay himself despaired that few artists had ever depicted him accurately, but when John Clay first viewed Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate, he was moved to tears by the sensitive portrayal of his father, declaring that “Mr. Staunton, in my opinion gives lifelike expression almost if not quite impossible to be excelled on canvas. No comparison between the two paintings as to merit and resemblance.”
In the end, Staunton’s entry lost four votes to three. Why did the Staunton painting lose? Legend has it that the presence of too many Northerners in the painting jeopardized Staunton’s chance of winning. The reason for Staunton’s defeat, however, may be as simple as his failure to adhere to the terms of the competition. Unlike a standard portrait, Staunton’s entry showed Clay along with a group of his contemporaries. The competition called for a single portrait of Henry clay, and the winning entry by William Frye fulfilled that requirement.
After losing the competition in 1866, the painting may have been installed at Ashland, the home of Henry Clay. The painting was moved again after Phineas Staunton died in 1867 from yellow fever that he contracted in Quito, Ecuador during a prestigious scientific mission sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. His grieving widow erected the Staunton Art Conservatory at the women’s college she had founded in the artist’s hometown of Le Roy, New York, and she had, Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate installed there. When the women’s college folded and its property sold at auction in 1901, the painting was then purchased for just $60 by a local school, where schoolboys tossed balls at it during study hall, causing damage. Eventually the painting found refuge at the Le Roy Historical Society, but because of its immense size it was unable to be displayed, so the painting and its unassembled frame were stored in the Society’s basement for more than 50 inclement New York winters.
As years turned into decades, Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate fell into obscurity. In 2006 the painting and its original frame were rediscovered in a storage area scheduled for renovation, and were donated to the Senate by the Le Roy Historical Society. The painting suffered years of accumulated grime and other environmental abuse. Fragile and flaking paint, stains, multiple tears, and brittle canvas marred the appearance and structural integrity of the piece. The decorative Victorian-era frame, made of exceptional Honduras mahogany, suffered water damage and chips, bore a heavy coat of dirt, and had been splattered with paint.
Secretary of the Senate Nancy Erickson described the amazing transformation effort by the fine art conservators: “I’ll never forget my first glimpse of the painting—it was leaning against a blue pickup truck! It was difficult to visualize that this painting, which had suffered the ravages of time as well as abuse from boys who used the painting as basketball backboard when it hung on the wall of a local school, would be restored to its original splendor. Inch by inch the painting was meticulously cleaned and restored, and for the past 2 ½ years I looked forward to the Curator staff reports on the progress being made on ‘Henry.’”
What makes Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate so special? One reason is that it is one of the only three known paintings of the Senate set in the historic Old Senate Chamber. Staunton’s accuracy in representing the venerable room and its furnishings make him one of the few American artists to have recorded the Chamber, the arena for a tremendous era in American history.
For Secretary Erickson, the painting brings to life the history of the Senate. “When I look at this painting, I can’t help but visualize the Senate Gallery, which was likely full of visitors who flocked to the Senate to hear the great orators like Henry Clay. The painting is a tribute to the Senate’s ‘Golden Era’ and is a treasure for the future generations to enjoy—and hopefully, he inspired to learn more about the U.S. Senate’s rich history.”
Small details in the portrait provide clues to interpreting the painting. Henry Clay gestures towards a document bearing the title “In Senate, 1851.” The Senate Journal underneath the Chamber desk is labeled, “1st Sess. 32nd Cong.” Henry Clay died in 1852, with his final appearance in the Senate Chamber in late 1851. Rather than depict Clay’s 1850 Compromise debates, the artist chose to memorialize the statesman and surrounded him with 12 colleagues. Interestingly, four of the figures were in such poor condition that they were unrecognizable until conservation was preformed.
Secretary Erickson sums up how important this painting is to her and the Senate: “For everyone who worked on this project, I think it’s fair to say that long after we’ve left our job in the Senate, we will always take special pride in being a part of this project. I am especially grateful to the Le Roy Historical Society for sharing this painting with the Senate.”
Learn more about this painting's acquisition and its fascinating past at http://www.senate.gov/Clay1851 .