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Henry Clay

Title Henry Clay
Artist/Maker Henry Kirke Brown ( 1814   -   1886 )  
Date 1852
Medium Bronze
Dimensions h. 16.25 x w. 9.5 x d. 6 in. (h. 41.3 x w. 24.1 x d. 15.2 cm)
Credit Line U.S. Senate Collection
Accession Number 24.00009.000

  • Object Description
  • The Senate’s bronze bust of Henry Clay was executed by artist Henry Kirke Brown in September 1852, three months after the great statesman’s death. The cabinet-size bust came into the possession of Isaac Bassett, assistant doorkeeper of the Senate, around that same year. In his unpublished remembrances, Bassett noted that he acquired it through Asbury Dickins, secretary of the Senate, and that it was used by William H. Dougal (with the profile facing left) for the frontispiece of the Obituary Addresses on the Occasion of the Death of the Hon. Henry Clay, published by Congress in 1852. It also appears to have been used as a model for a memorial medal of Clay struck about 1855. The bust remained with Bassett’s heirs until purchased by the Senate Commission on Art in 1990.

    Brown began his art career as a painter, studying with portraitist Chester Harding in Boston. He later became interested in sculpture and traveled to Italy in 1842 to study and work. Less convinced than many of his contemporaries as to the benefits of European classical training for American artists, Brown returned to New York City four years later, where he established a studio and small foundry.

    Brown’s bust of Clay is obviously a commemorative work, but whether it was commissioned by a patron is not known. More likely, given its reduced size, it was produced on speculation, in the hope that a market for casts of the sculpture would materialize. The bust has received little notice, perhaps because it was soon overshadowed by the equestrian statue of George Washington in Union Square in New York City that followed and is considered Brown’s best work.

    An earlier version of the bust in the collection of the Newark Museum in New Jersey is dated June 1852 and appears to have been completed around the time of Clay’s death on June 29. But Clay had been ill for six months before his death, so the work probably was not modeled from life. Other versions of the Clay bust, also dated 1852 to commemorate Clay’s death, are in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., and the Special Collections of the University of Kentucky. All were cast from molds made from the same clay model.

    Because Brown had little opportunity for a life sitting with Clay, the question of his source for the clay model arises. The most noted sculpture of Clay was one by Joel T. Hart (1847), which probably served as the stimulus for Thomas Ball’s 1858 posthumous portrait of Clay. The conception is very similar to Brown’s, and it may well have been his starting point, too. But there were also many portrait paintings, prints, and daguerreotypes of the “Great Compromiser” to guide Brown. Clay’s contemporaries considered him a difficult subject for artists. The British writer Harriet Martineau observed in 1838 that “no one has succeeded in catching the subtle expression of placid kindness, mingled with astuteness.” [1]

    Henry Kirke Brown deserves credit for making posterity believe in the visual truth of his Henry Clay. The reduced size of the head results in a concentrated naturalism. Clay’s distinctive features–-the narrow, high-domed skull; finely structured eye sockets; aquiline nose; high upper lip; wide, thin mouth; and especially the side of the face–-are modeled with variety and nuance. The flesh appears malleable, the shifting planes of the face are carefully followed, and the striking network of veins in the forehead and temples carries special conviction.

    In terms of post-Civil War sculpture, Brown is a major presence in the nation’s capital. In addition to the Clay bust owned by the Senate, he is known for his equestrian statues of Nathanael Greene and Winfield Scott, and portrait statues in the U.S. Capitol’s National Statuary Hall Collection of George Clinton of New York, Nathanael Greene of Rhode Island, and Philip Kearney and Richard Stockton of New Jersey.

    1. Harriet Martineau, “Webster and Clay Contrasted,” In America through British Eyes, edited by Allan Nevins, originally published as American Social History as Recorded by British Travellers (1923; new, rev. and enl. ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1948), 157.

  • Signatures, Inscriptions, and Markings
  • Signature (on subject's back right side): H.K. Brown Sculptor / Sept. 1852
  • 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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