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John C. Calhoun

Title John C. Calhoun
Artist/Maker Henry F. Darby ( 1829   -   1897 )  
Date 1858 ca.
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions h. 49.75 x w. 35.63 in. (h. 126.4 x w. 90.5 cm)
Credit Line U.S. Senate Collection
Accession Number 32.00003.000

  • Object Description
  • America’s premier 19th-century photographer, Mathew B. Brady, sold this painting of John C. Calhoun by Henry Darby to the federal government in 1881. Financial reversals had forced Brady to part with this and two other prized oils, those of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. The three had hung together in a prominent position in Brady’s elegant photographic gallery on the corner of Broadway and Tenth Street, in New York City. Of the Calhoun portrait, an impressed New York Times reviewer noted, “The ragged, wiry character of the face marking nervous energy, [and] the overhanging brow and broad intellectual development [capture] Calhoun at a glance.” [1]

    In 1849 or 1850, shortly before his death, John C. Calhoun and his daughter, Florence Clemson, had stopped by Brady’s gallery to have a daguerreotype made. The picture was intended to satisfy his granddaughter’s request for an image of him for her locket. Calhoun, now nearing 70, had lost his youthful vigor. Wrote Brady: “His hair, which in his younger days had been dark, and had stood frowningly over his broad, square forehead, was now long and thin and combed back, falling behind his ears. His most outstanding feature was his eye which startled and almost hypnotized me!” During intervals of posing, Brady noted that Calhoun’s daughter “delicately arranged her father’s hair and the folds of his coat....” [2]

    Later, Brady was to claim that artist Henry Darby had been present for the photography session, making a study for the painting. The evidence is fairly convincing, however, that Darby based his portrait on an existing Brady daguerreotype rather than on direct studies from life. The two often teamed up in this fashion, using a process by which glass negative copies of the daguerreotypes were projected onto sensitized canvas, then “enhanced” with oil paint.

    The inscription on the reverse of the canvas—”Calhoun / from Life by Darby / H. F. Darby / 1858”—appears to be contradictory. Calhoun died in 1850, making an 1858 life portrait an impossibility. By 1858, Darby’s studio and Brady’s photographic gallery were located within the same block of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. No reference to the oil portrait occurs until that year, when it was exhibited at Brady’s National Photographic Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., and again in 1859, when it was shown in New York City at the National Academy of Design. In 1860, one year later, the painting was displayed in Brady’s New York Gallery on Broadway. Therefore, it is likely that the inscription date is correct and that the painting was indeed made from Brady’s daguerreotype, instead of from life.

    Henry Darby led a varied career, from self-taught portraitist to ordained minister. Records also indicate that he was an art teacher, served on the National Arts Committee in Washington, D.C., and designed religious altarpieces and clerical attire. While few of his portraits and none of his later historical and religious paintings survive, his work can be found in the collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute Museum of Art in Utica, New York.

    1. Mary Panzer, Mathew Brady and the Image of History (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Portrait Gallery, 1997), 80.

    2. Roy Meredith, The World of Mathew Brady: Portraits of the Civil War Period (Los Angeles: Brooke House, 1976), 22.

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings
  • Signature (lower left corner): H. F. DARBY
  • Sitter(s)
  • Calhoun, John C.

    John Caldwell Calhoun served as both a U.S. representative and senator from South Carolina, and as the seventh vice president of the United States. Calhoun was born near Calhoun Mills, Abbeville District (now Mount Carmel, McCormick County), South Carolina. After practicing law, and serving in the state house of representatives from 1808 to 1809, Calhoun was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1810. There he became one of Speaker Henry Clay's principal lieutenants and a leader of the warhawks, a group of young congressmen who advocated war with Great Britain. As chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Calhoun introduced the declaration of war against Britain in June 1812. He served as secretary of war under President James Monroe from 1817 to 1825, was elected vice president with John Quincy Adams in 1824, and was reelected vice president on a ticket with Andrew Jackson in 1828.

    To further his opposition to high protective tariffs, Calhoun devised a doctrine of nullification whereby states could declare federal laws null and void within their borders. When President Jackson threatened to use military power to enforce a federal law nullified by South Carolina, Calhoun broke with Jackson. Calhoun resigned the vice presidency in December 1832 in order to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate. A powerful advocate for the Southern position, Calhoun supported the institution of slavery and the right of slaveholders to extend the practice into the western territories.

    Calhoun resigned from the Senate in 1843 planning to run for president, but instead he served briefly as secretary of state in the cabinet of President John Tyler. He was reelected to the Senate in 1845 and remained there until his death in 1850. Calhoun—along with Daniel Webster and Henry Clay—was part of the "Great Triumvirate" of the Senate's Golden Age.

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