The Senate’s bronze bust of Henry Clay was executed by artist Henry Kirke Brown in September 1852, three months after the great statesman’s death. The cabinet-size bust came into the possession of Isaac Bassett, assistant doorkeeper of the Senate, around that same year. In his unpublished remembrances, Bassett noted that he acquired it through Asbury Dickins, secretary of the Senate, and that it was used by William H. Dougal (with the profile facing left) for the frontispiece of the Obituary Addresses on the Occasion of the Death of the Hon. Henry Clay, published by Congress in 1852. It also appears to have been used as a model for a memorial medal of Clay struck about 1855. The bust remained with Bassett’s heirs until purchased by the Senate Commission on Art in 1990.
Brown began his art career as a painter, studying with portraitist Chester Harding in Boston. He later became interested in sculpture and traveled to Italy in 1842 to study and work. Less convinced than many of his contemporaries as to the benefits of European classical training for American artists, Brown returned to New York City four years later, where he established a studio and small foundry.
Brown’s bust of Clay is obviously a commemorative work, but whether it was commissioned by a patron is not known. More likely, given its reduced size, it was produced on speculation, in the hope that a market for casts of the sculpture would materialize. The bust has received little notice, perhaps because it was soon overshadowed by the equestrian statue of George Washington in Union Square in New York City that followed and is considered Brown’s best work.
An earlier version of the bust in the collection of the Newark Museum in New Jersey is dated June 1852 and appears to have been completed around the time of Clay’s death on June 29. But Clay had been ill for six months before his death, so the work probably was not modeled from life. Other versions of the Clay bust, also dated 1852 to commemorate Clay’s death, are in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Special Collections of the University of Kentucky. All were cast from molds made from the same clay model.
Because Brown had little opportunity for a life sitting with Clay, the question of his source for the clay model arises. The most noted sculpture of Clay was one by Joel T. Hart (1847), which probably served as the stimulus for Thomas Ball’s 1858 posthumous portrait of Clay. The conception is very similar to Brown’s, and it may well have been his starting point, too. But there were also many portrait paintings, prints, and daguerreotypes of the “Great Compromiser” to guide Brown. Clay’s contemporaries considered him a difficult subject for artists. The British writer Harriet Martineau observed in 1838 that “no one has succeeded in catching the subtle expression of placid kindness, mingled with astuteness.” 
Henry Kirke Brown deserves credit for making posterity believe in the visual truth of his Henry Clay. The reduced size of the head results in a concentrated naturalism. Clay’s distinctive features–-the narrow, high-domed skull; finely structured eye sockets; aquiline nose; high upper lip; wide, thin mouth; and especially the side of the face–-are modeled with variety and nuance. The flesh appears malleable, the shifting planes of the face are carefully followed, and the striking network of veins in the forehead and temples carries special conviction.
In terms of post-Civil War sculpture, Brown is a major presence in the nation’s capital. In addition to the Clay bust owned by the Senate, he is known for his equestrian statues of Nathanael Greene and Winfield Scott, and portrait statues in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection of George Clinton of New York, Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island, and Philip Kearney and Richard Stockton of New Jersey.
1. Harriet Martineau, “Webster and Clay Contrasted,” In America through British Eyes, edited by Allan Nevins, originally published as American Social History as Recorded by British Travellers (1923; new, rev. and enl. ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1948), 157.