Henry F. Darby, who painted this portrait of Henry Clay, shared a studio with noted painter Samuel Colman in the late 1850s. What little is known of Darby comes from Colman’s recollections and Darby’s own writings, now in the collection of the Oneida Historical Society in New York. These include correspondence and a journal he wrote at age 65 for his daughter.
Born in North Adams, Massachusetts, Darby was self-taught, except for brief instruction from itinerant painters. According to one account, he was painting in oils by 1842, when he was 13. Evidence of his precocity is found in a fascinating painting, The Reverend John Atwood and His Family, in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Here Darby’s style is that of a determined New England limner, and the group portrait, fully signed and dated 1845, is a remarkable achievement, compelling in its realism.
In 1847 Darby became a teacher at the South Carolina Female College in Barhamville. He soon returned north, where he lived in New York City and Brooklyn from 1853 to 1860 and displayed portraits at the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design. In 1859-60 he showed paintings of John C. Calhoun and Clay. Darby, who was briefly married, divided his time between Brooklyn, his wife’s family home in Brownsville, New York, and Washington, D.C. He was a deeply religious man, and the death of his wife in 1858 impelled him to abandon portrait painting. After placing his young daughter in the care of his wife’s family, Darby studied for the ministry, and in 1865 he became deacon of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Whitesboro, New York. In 1869 he sailed to England, where he briefly served the Anglican Church. He had returned to America by 1873, when records place him at Saint Saviour’s Church in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Later he moved to New York City. Darby continued to paint–-mainly religious themes–-and he exhibited works as late as 1882 at the Utica Art Association. Few of these later works survive. Age brought failing health, and the artist took up residence with his daughter in Fishkill, New York, where he died in 1897.
The portrait of Henry Clay is simply conceived: a three-quarter-length figure is seated in a wooden armchair. Darby has placed the chair at a slight angle to the picture plane, next to the corner of a covered table. On the table’s surface lie some sheets of paper and a quill pen. Darby has positioned Clay’s head to the right of center, and he has devoted most of his attention to the precise and convincing modeling of it. Brightly lit, the superb face radiates intellect and self-control. The hands are at rest but are expressive and pictorially pleasing. The large canvas tends to dissipate the focus; Clay’s suit and the background are monotonous (doubtless they have darkened over time).
The stark presentation of figure against dark ground hints at the pictorial source of the portrait: a daguerreotype of Clay. The painting was apparently created by projecting a collodion plate onto a sensitized canvas, then painting over the image in oil. The effect is precisely that of an enlarged photograph. Mathew Brady, who owned this painting and Darby’s portrait of John Calhoun, and from whom the Senate acquired both, wrote in 1881 that he had made a photographic portrait of Clay in 1850 and that “Darby made his study at the same time for the oil painting.” But several scholars believe instead that a photograph, attributed either to Brady or to the Boston firm of Southworth and Hawes, was Darby’s main source. Brady did not say that Darby painted his portrait of Clay in 1850, only “his study.” The actual portrait was probably painted nearer to the date of its 1860 exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York City. Likewise, Darby’s portrait of Calhoun (which Brady associated with an 1849 photographic session) is signed and dated 1858, and the Clay may date from the same time.
Darby’s portraits of Clay and Calhoun are among the earliest to owe their composition (and, to some extent, their appearance) to assistance from photography. The invention of photography had a notable effect on portrait painting. Initially, at least, it reinforced the descriptive naturalism that was already a common trait of 19th-century portraiture. And for patrons of lesser means, it became a replacement for painted portraits, including miniatures. While some painters feared the competition from photography, many artists agreed with the opinion of painter-photographer-inventor Samuel F.B. Morse, who observed in 1839: “Art is to be wonderfully enriched by this discovery. How narrow and foolish the idea which some express that it will be the ruin of art. . . . Nature, in the results of Daguerre’s process, . . .shows that the minutest detail disturbs not the general repose.” 
1. William Kloss, Samuel F.B. Morse (New York: H.N. Abrams, in association with the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1988), 146.