DEPICTING HENRY CLAY
Although Phineas Staunton painted Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate some fourteen years after the statesman’s death, he had previously painted Clay from life on at least one occasion. A New Orleans newspaper noted in 1847 that the artist had recently completed a portrait of Clay, lauding it as “one of the finest we have ever seen…the expression [is] wonderfully correct. No picture of Mr. Clay gives a better idea of that great man’s countenance than this of Mr. Staunton’s.”
Henry Clay himself despaired that few artists had ever depicted him accurately, but when his son John 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."
While Staunton portrays Clay in the iconographic pose associated with the brilliant orator, he has rendered the countenance with a fascinating poignancy. The elderly statesman’s blue eyes shine enigmatic and profound. The furrowed brow suggests the senator’s mighty concerns about reconciling the nation’s deep divisions.
“You can imagine what repugnance one has to sit to an artist, who has submitted to that operation more than one hundred times.... I ought to add that what has, probably, increased my repugnance to sitting has been the repeated failures, both of painters and sculptors, to exhibit a correct likeness of me.”