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The Senate's Oldest Art Collection

May 13, 1886

Henry Wilson

Day and night, throughout the year, 20 grim-faced men keep watch over the Senate Chamber. Stationed in the gallery, they never speak. A visitor might ask who they are and how they got there.

These silent sentinels memorialize those who held the office of vice president of the United States between 1789 and 1885. They got to their gallery niches because the Senate agreed on May 13, 1886, to commission marble portrait busts to honor their service, under the Constitution, as presidents of the Senate.

An unveiling earlier in 1886 of a portrait bust in memory of Henry Wilson inspired this plan. Wilson, a popular vice president, had died in office 11 years earlier in the Vice President's Room, near the Senate Chamber. The notable American sculptor Daniel Chester French produced the Wilson bust, placed on permanent display in the Vice President's Room.

Sculptor French assisted the Senate in establishing guidelines for the larger collection and agreed to prepare the first entry—a likeness of the body's first president, John Adams. French accepted the Adams commission despite his misgivings about the paltry $800 fee the Senate had set for each of these marble portraits. He said, "I consider it an honor and worth a great deal to have a bust of mine in so important a position. I do not know how many sculptors you will find who will look at it in the same way."

The Senate unveiled the portrait busts of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on its 100th anniversary in 1889. By 1898, all 20 of the gallery's niches were occupied, and the Senate provided that additional busts be placed throughout its Capitol wing. Today, 45 former vice presidents currently have a place in this special Senate Pantheon. Tennessee's Andrew Johnson will forever share a corner with Kentucky's John Breckinridge, whom he supported in 1860 for the presidency, denounced in 1863 for his military attacks on Tennessee, and pardoned in 1868 for his service as Confederate secretary of war.

Outside the chamber, two other vice presidents who shared an uneasy relationship now stand across from one another, their heads slightly turned to avoid eye contact. What must be running through the marble minds of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon?