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Henry Clay

Title Henry Clay
Artist/Maker Allyn Cox
Date 1958
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions h. 22.63 x w. 19.5 in. (h. 57.5 x w. 49.5 cm)
Credit Line U.S. Senate Collection
Accession Number 32.00007.000

  • Object Description
  • In 1955 the Senate decided to honor five of its most significant former members by commissioning their portraits for permanent display in the Reception Room adjacent to the Senate Chamber. The portraits were placed in oval medallions on the walls originally planned for likenesses of “illustrious men” but left vacant when Constantino Brumidi painted the room in the mid-19th century. A committee chaired by Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts was formed to choose the five outstanding members; Henry Clay, Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, and John C. Calhoun of South Carolina were easily selected. The committee had difficulty determining the final two subjects, but eventually agreed on Robert M. La Follette, Sr., of Wisconsin and Robert A. Taft, Sr. , of Ohio, both Republicans.

    Following the selection of the five senators, a special Senate commission was charged with choosing American artists to paint the five portraits. The commission was composed of the architect of the Capitol, the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the chairman of the Commission on Fine Arts. In 1953 New York muralist Allyn Cox had been hired to complete the frieze in the Capitol Rotunda left unfinished since the 1880s; now he was chosen to supervise portraits for the Reception Room, assuring visual harmony. Cox would also paint the Henry Clay portrait.

    The commission originally intended the portraits to be painted directly onto plaster in the Senate Reception Room. However, Cox persuaded them that the portraits should be executed on canvas, which could then be attached to the wall. The commission also altered its plan to have the portraits painted simultaneously in the Reception Room. Instead, the artists worked on the portraits in their own studios, gathering at the Capitol to put the finishing touches on the paintings after installation.

    The commission recommended that Cox base his likeness of Clay on George P.A. Healy’s portrait, now owned by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. The Healy portrait was created during a two-month sitting in 1845 at Clay’s Kentucky home, Ashland. Healy found that Clay, with his quickly changing moods and expressions, was a challenge to capture on canvas. Clay was delighted with the result, however, stating: “You are a capital portrait painter, Mr. Healy. You are the first to do justice to my mouth, and it is well pleased to express its gratitude.” [1]

    Born in New York City in 1896, Allyn Cox apprenticed to his father, the artist Kenyon Cox, working on murals for the Wisconsin State Capitol. He later studied at the National Academy of Design and the Art Students League in New York City, and at the American Academy in Rome. In 1952 Cox began an association with the U.S. Capitol that was to last throughout his life. In addition to his work in the Capitol Rotunda and his portrait of Henry Clay, Cox was commissioned to depict the first landing on the Moon for a panel in the Senate’s Brumidi Corridors, and his many murals of historic scenes and personalities decorate the ceiling and walls of the first floor corridors on the House side of the Capitol. Dubbed “the American Michelangelo,” Cox died of a stroke in 1982, just five days after attending a ceremony held in his honor on September 21 in National Statuary Hall at the Capitol.

    1. Marie De Mare, G.P.A. Healy, American Artist: An Intimate Chronicle of the Nineteenth Century (New York: David McKay, 1954), 134.

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  • Sitter(s)
  • Clay, Henry

    The "Great Compromiser," Henry Clay, a native of Virginia, moved to Kentucky at the age of 20 and settled in Lexington. There he practiced law with great success, aided by his sharp wit and nimble mind. In 1806, after a stint in the Kentucky legislature, he was elected to fill the unexpired term of a U.S. senator who had resigned. Clay took the seat, although he was four months younger than the constitutional age requirement of 30. In 1807 he again was elected to the Kentucky legislature, where he eventually served as Speaker. Clay spent most of the years from 1811 to 1825 in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he was elected Speaker his first day in office. Almost immediately Clay made a name for himself as one of the warhawks, the young politicians who fueled anti-British sentiment and helped bring about the War of 1812. In 1814, he served as one of the commissioners negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war. During his years in the House, the well-respected Clay was elected Speaker six times.

    It was during his time in the U.S. House that Clay urged that the United States become the center of an "American System," joined by all of South America, to wean the country away from dependence on the European economy and politics. He dedicated much of his career to a high protective tariff on imported goods, a strong national bank, and to extensive improvements in the nation's infrastructure.

    In 1825, after an unsuccessful campaign for the presidency, Clay was appointed secretary of state under John Quincy Adams. He served in that position until 1829, and was subsequently elected to the U.S. Senate. From 1831 to 1842, and again from 1849 to 1852, Clay distinguished himself as one of the Senate's most effective and influential members.

    Clay earned the sobriquet "Great Compromiser" by crafting three major legislative compromises over the course of 30 years. Each time, he pulled the United States from the brink of civil war. In 1820 and 1821, he used his role as Speaker of the House to broker the Missouri Compromise, a series of brilliant resolutions he introduced to defuse the pitched battle as to whether Missouri would be admitted to the Union as a slave state or free state. Although he owned slaves himself, Clay anguished about slavery, which he called a "great evil." He believed slavery would become economically obsolete as a growing population reduced the cost of legitimate labor. Under Clay's compromise, Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine as a free state.

    In 1833 Clay's skill again was tested when South Carolina passed an ordinance that nullified a federally instituted protective tariff. Although President Andrew Jackson urged Congress to modify the tariff, he threatened to use federal troops against South Carolina if the state refused to collect it. Despite a long-standing enmity toward Jackson and with a deep commitment to high tariffs, Clay ended the crisis by placating both sides. He introduced a resolution that upheld the tariff but promised its repeal in seven years.

    The argument over slavery flared once again in 1850 when Congress considered how to organize the vast territory ceded by Mexico after the Mexican War. As in 1820, Clay saw the issue as maintaining the balance of power in Congress. His personal appeal to Daniel Webster enlisted the support of that great statesman for Clay's series of resolutions, and civil war was again averted.

    Clay died in 1852. Despite his brilliant service to the country and three separate campaigns, he never attained his greatest ambition–-the presidency. A man of immense political abilities and extraordinary charm, Clay won widespread admiration, even among his adversaries. John C. Calhoun, whom he had bested in the Compromise of 1850, once declared, "I don't like Clay. . . . I wouldn't speak to him, but, by God! I love him." [1]

    1. Robert V. Remini, Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991), 578.

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