One of the leading sculptors of the post-Civil War period, Thomas Ball began his artistic career as a painter, but by 1850 he had turned to sculpture. He quickly established a reputation in this new medium with small plaster statuettes and portrait studies. His first work, a cabinet-size portrait bust of Swedish singer Jenny Lind, won such favor that Ball could not produce replicas swiftly enough.
Following a period of study and work in Italy from 1854 to 1857, the artist returned to the United States and soon began a monumental bronze equestrian statue of George Washington for Boston’s Public Garden. Also at this time, he executed this statuette of Henry Clay as a companion piece to the small bronze of Daniel Webster he had completed five years earlier. “To me it was not as successful,” wrote the artist about his Clay statuette.  Ball’s opinion is not one generally acknowledged when the two works are compared, however, because his Clay has precisely the animation that his Webster lacks.
A relaxed pose, both alert and poised, shows Clay’s tall, lanky body to good effect. Clay seems to turn toward his audience while unrolling the pages of a speech or, more probably, a resolution. The distinctive head is vigorously modeled, with broad mouth, straight nose, wide-spaced eyes, and an expansive brow bracketed by markedly depressed temples. At the opposite end of the body are Clay’s remarkably large feet. The attention to accuracy in the feet, as in the head, is characteristic of Ball and is found also in the costume. Yet somehow the detail in the costume is not distracting, as it is in the Webster statuette. Creases and stretches are fitted to a governing rhythm and contribute to the whole effect. Ball clearly profited from his study of Italian sculpture.
The statue is, of course, posthumous: Ball had no more opportunity to take Clay’s likeness from life than he had Webster’s. His sources were the existing paintings, sculptures, and lithographs of the statesman. For instance, Joel T. Hart, another American sculptor then active in Florence, had completed his life-size, full-length marble statue of Clay in Italy during the 1850s. Hart had become Ball’s good friend, and Ball must have been intimately familiar with the statue, which may have been the inspiration for creating his own likeness of Clay.
The abbreviated column beside Clay signifies Fortitude, as it does for Ball’s statuette of Webster. (The classical personification of “Fortitude” later acquired the column as an attribute from the biblical account of Samson sacrificing himself to save the Hebrew people by pulling down the columns supporting the Philistines’ temple.) The two or three papers Clay holds may have had a specific reference to a resolution he offered in the House in 1821 as Speaker. Throughout his life, Clay remained famous for his resolution in support of emerging South American colonies “struggling to burst their chains.”  He is still honored in South America for his passionate support of independence there.
As he had with his statuette of Webster, Thomas Ball claimed and assigned the patent for “a new and useful design for a statuette of Henry Clay” to George W. Nichols of New York City on November 9, 1858. Nichols turned again to the Ames foundry in Chicopee, Massachusetts, for the casting. The pragmatic drawing, prepared by the examiner for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, is keyed with letters referencing Ball’s description in the patent application.
Thomas Ball’s career continued to flourish, and he received many lucrative commissions throughout his life. His public monuments include the Emancipation Group in Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C., statues of Charles Sumner and Josiah Quincy in Boston, and the sculpture of Daniel Webster for New York’s Central Park. Other bronze copies of the Clay statuette are in the collections of the White House, the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh, and the Newark Museum in New Jersey.
1. Thomas Ball, My Threescore Years and Ten: An Autobiography (1892; reprint, New York: Garland, 1977), 209.
2. Henry Clay, Life and Speeches of the Honorable Henry Clay, vol. 1, edited by Daniel Mallory (New York: Robert P. Bixby, 1843), 324.