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An Historic Painting, Rediscovered: Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate

On May 23, 2009 Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate by Phineas Staunton arrived at the Capitol on a beautiful, sunlit morning while a small crowd gathered to watch.

Installation in U.S. Capitol of Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate Installation in U.S. Capitol of Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate
The painting arrivesInstalling the painting

Nearly 140 years earlier, the painting lost the competition for which it was created. In 1865 as the Civil War drew to a close, the Kentucky state legislature launched a competition for a life-size portrait of Henry Clay for its state capitol. New York artist Phineas Staunton unsuccessfully entered the competition. The painting returned to the artist's hometown of Le Roy, New York and, over time, fell into obscurity.

In 1901 the painting was sold for just $60 to the Le Roy Union Free School where schoolboys tossed balls at it during study hall, as evidenced by the many concentric rings of damage etched onto the painting's surface.

In fact, the painting suffered other ravages of time: fragile and flaking paint, stains, multiple tears, and brittle canvas. When the Le Roy Historical Society offered the painting to the Senate, the work needed extensive conservation. Both the painting and its original frame, made of much-coveted Honduras mahogany, were painstakingly restored and the historically important painting was welcomed to the U.S. Capitol for installation in the East Brumidi Stairway.

Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate depicts Clay in the year 1851, posed in the Old Senate Chamber with 12 contemporaries and Senate colleagues—a roll call of legendary figures. It is one of only three known paintings of the Senate set in its venerable early Chamber.

Learn more about this acquisition and its fascinating past at http://www.senate.gov/Clay1851.

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