The Rescue of Henry Clay

A long-lost painting of the Senate’s Great Compromiser finds a fitting new home in the halls of the U.S. Capitol

Phineas Staunton paid homage to his subject, Henry Clay, in an 11-by7-foot canvas. (U.S. Senate Commission on Art)
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Although Phineas Staunton, who had trained at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, had once met Clay, the painter would not create the senator's portrait until 1865, when he entered a competition to memorialize Clay announced by the State of Kentucky. Staunton depicted Clay in the midst of the Compromise of 1850 debate. Staunton failed to win by a 4-to-3 vote of the judges. (Rumor had it that Staunton's inclusion of Northern senators had dashed his success.)

The painting was shipped back to Staunton's hometown, Le Roy, New York, near Rochester. Meanwhile, Staunton had signed on as an illustrator with a fossil-collecting expedition to South America sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution. He succumbed to tropical fever in Ecuador in September 1867 at age 49.

Until 1901, Henry Clay in the U.S. Senate hung in an art conservatory in Le Roy, and then for decades in a local public school, where Clay served as a target for peashooters, spitballs and basketballs, which left a moonscape of dents and tears on the canvas. In the 1950s, the painting was consigned to the basement of the Le Roy Historical Society's warehouse, amid carriages, cast-iron stoves and a 1908 Cadillac. Then, in January 2006, Lynne Belluscio, the society's director, received a call from Amy Elizabeth Burton, an art historian in the office of the U.S. Senate curator. Burton had learned of the painting from a descendant of Staunton. Did the society possess a portrait showing Clay in the Senate?

Burton was soon on a plane to Le Roy. There she found the canvas, cracked, flaking and so filthy that many figures were unrecognizable. "It was covered with grime," recalls Burton. "It was torn, it had blobs on it. But Clay's face shone out with that fateful gaze of his. All I could think of was, ‘Oh, my word, it's an art historian's dream come true!'" The painting's significance was immediately apparent: it is one of only a handful of works documenting the Old Senate Chamber, which, after expansion of the Capitol in 1859, was occupied by the Supreme Court until 1935. Would the Historical Society, Burton asked, ever consider parting with Staunton's work? "It took about a nanosecond," Belluscio recalls, "to say yes."

Restoration began in January 2008 and was completed this past May. "It was one of the largest paintings in the worst condition that I ever saw—maybe the worst," says Peter Nelsen, a senior conservator with Artex, a Landover, Maryland, restoration firm. "It looked as if it had been buried." Sections as small as one square inch had to be repaired, one at a time, 11,000 square inches in all. "It was the most challenging painting that we ever worked on," Nelsen adds. "It kept me awake at night with anxiety."

Gradually, figures began to emerge from the background: the legendary orator Daniel Webster; abolitionist William Henry Seward; blustering Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri; and Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the "Little Giant" who finalized the 1850 compromise after the senator from Kentucky collapsed. At the center stood Clay, his face transfigured by Staunton with an unearthly radiance.

What, one wonders, would Clay make of the heated exchanges that occur across the aisle in Congress today? "Our discourse pales with comparison to the early history of the country," says Senator Mitch McConnell, a lifelong admirer of his Kentucky predecessor. For 14 years, McConnell sat at Clay's Senate desk. (Kentucky's junior senator, Jim Bunning, currently occupies it.) "The compromises he wrought were life and death issues for the nation, at a time when not everyone was sure the nation would last. If you are going to be able to govern yourself, you have to learn to compromise. You can either get something, or get nothing; if you want to get something, you have to compromise."

Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York concurs. "Henry Clay's talent repeatedly drew us back from the brink of calamity," he says. "The hanging of Clay's painting couldn't come at a more symbolic time. I hope it will be a reminder to all of us in the Senate that bipartisan agreement can help push us toward becoming a more prosperous nation."

Frequent contributor Fergus M. Bordewich's most recent book is Washington: The Making of the American Capital.


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