A Vermont native, Arthur became president unexpectedly following President James A. Garfield's assassination in 1881. Despite a background in machine politics, the new president championed civil service and other reforms, and his term is remembered as one of honest and efficient government. The Republican party, unhappy with Arthur's failure to adhere to partisan principles, refused him the presidential nomination in 1884. He died a year later.
The marble portrait bust of Chester Arthur was one of the first works commissioned by the 1886 Senate resolution establishing the Senate's vice presidential bust collection. Arthur was still living at the time, and he selected American artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens to model his likeness. Initially the artist declined, but later reconsidered. In July 1887, following Arthur's death, Saint-Gaudens agreed to execute the bust.
This was Saint-Gaudens's most active period: in 1887 his standing portrait of Abraham Lincoln was unveiled in Chicago's Lincoln Park, and The Puritan was formally presented in Springfield, Massachusetts. The sculptor was also working on the figure Grief for the Adams memorial in Washington, D.C.'s Rock Creek Cemetery. Nearly five years elapsed between the artist's formal acceptance of the commission and the Senate's receipt of the completed bust. It was placed in a gallery niche in the Senate chamber in early 1892.
Saint-Gaudens also completed the bust of Roger Brooke Taney, which is in the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol.