Art Treasures of Washington – Historic Portraits

THE Capitol’s widest field, as an artistic treasure house, is in the department of historic portraiture. There are hundreds of portraits in the various rooms, corridors and halls, depicting the person-ages of the nation; and of these hundreds not a few are masterpieces.

Amongst the first to be installed were the full-length portraits of Lafayette and Washington, which are placed one on each side of the Speaker’s chair in the House of Representatives.

While of all the well-known portraits of the distinguished French general, this one by Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) is the least pleasing, there is about it a fine flavour of sincerity and age, a quaintness of physiognomy and pose, that give to the canvas both character and distinction that class the portrait amongst the élite of the government’s possessions.

In Morse’s ” Lafayette ” in City Hall, New York, in Sully’s presentment of the general, in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, there is a kind of humour, an appreciation of the French ésprit of the sitter, which has not revealed itself to the sober vision of Scheffer. All three portraits present the marquis in civilian costume, but while Sully and Morse depict a stylish fit and elegance of garment, denoting a man not indifferent to the expressive charm of outward apparel, the Dutchman portrays a less finished man of the world, from whom the earthly fripperies have been expunged.

The portrait is impressive and dignified. The head is well painted, the pose simple, with a certain archaic stiffness. It .was executed by order of Lafayette and presented by him to Congress, on the occasion of his second visit to the United States, in 1824.

Ary Scheffer, though born in Dordrecht, was counted a Frenchman, before the civil law, because under the name of the Bavarian Republic, his birth-place was within the limits of the new French Departments. Hamerton makes the following just analysis of his contribution to art :

” Scheffer, as an artist, owes his rank, almost entirely, to the elevation of his feeling. His drawing is usually correct, and his taste refined; but his colour is bad, and though his handling is neat, from much practice, it has no artistic subtlety. The excellence of his personal character had some concern in his success. . . . He will be remembered as an artist of high aim and pure sentiment, and a man of more than common political conviction and fidelity, but his influence upon art has been slight, and will not be durable.”

The portrait of Washington that hangs pendent to Lafayette, in the House of Representatives, is a copy of the Stuart socalled Lansdowne portrait, made by John Vanderlyn.

The lobby of the House of Representatives contains an interesting series of portraits of speakers of the House, including a few fine works of art.

Amongst the oldest portraits here assembled is that of Henry Clay, by Giuseppe Fagnani (1819-1873), a Neapolitan artist of marked ability, who came to this country, in 1851, and lived in New York. His career as an artist was that of a kind of court painter. He painted the Archduke Charles of Vienna, and in 1842 accepted an engagement from. the queen regent of Spain, Maria Christina, to make album portraits of the distinguished per-sons who shared her exile. While occupied upon this work, he met Sir Robert Peel and Sir Henry Bulwer, with whom he came to New York. He identified himself with our country by his marriage to an American.

Fagnani’s portrait of Henry Clay is considered one of the best that was made of that eminent statesman. It is an oval- bust, emphasizing the keenness of eye and the spare. frame of the sitter, dominated by the high brow so characteristic of his intellectual face. The workmanship is refined without losing force, and a whimsical personality animates the whole with an insistence that commands attention.

Robert Winthrop, by Daniel Huntington, is an impressive and dignified portrait of the Massachusetts statesman, who was speaker of the House from 1847 to 1849. He served Congress for ten years with much distinction, maintaining the reputation he had already acquired in the Massachusetts state legislature, as a ready debater and accomplished parliamentarian ; adding to it by a series of impressive speeches upon public questions, many of which are still consulted as authorities. Toward the end of his life he became famous as a favourite orator of great historical anniversaries.

The portrait of Joseph B. Varnum, of Massachusetts, is another of those charming delineations of old men from the sympathetic brush of Charles Loring Elliott. The flesh painting, the white, silky hair, the refinement of pose, bespeak the character of the sitter, and the appreciation of the painter. Varnum was a member of the House from 1795 to 1811, during which time he was chosen speaker two terms, from 1807 to 1811, being the immediate predecessor of Henry Clay. From 1811 to 1817 he was senator from Massachusetts, being elected in opposition to Timothy Pickering, and he was president, pro tempore of the Senate, and acting vice-president of the United States from December 6, 1813 to April 17, 1814.

These two portraits, together with a third, of Nathaniel P. Banks, by Robert W. Vonnah, were presented to the collection by the State and citizens of Massachusetts. The latter is an admirable canvas, of the strongest period of Mr. Vonnoh’s portraiture. It is a virile characterization, with life, dramatic action, and rugged strength.

John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Thomas B. Reed, of Maine, was presented to the House by Henry Cabot Lodge and others. The head is boldly painted in Sargent’s most serious style, dealing admirably with the smooth contours, and rich masses of form presented, while the painting of the eyes commands special attention.

In the corridor above the east stairway of the House wing, are three interesting portraits : a full-length of Henry Clay, by John Neagle; Charles Carroll, by Chester Harding (?) ; and Gunning Bedford, attributed to Charles Willson Peale. Ac-cording to some authorities the portrait of Charles Carroll is attributed to Sully.

The portrait of Henry Clay, by Neagle, is signed and dated John Neagle, 1843. The canvas is more quaint than artistic, and depicts Clay as a gaunt personage, surrounded by many symbols suggestive of his life; a flag, a globe, cows, ships — the whole relieved against a stormy sky. His attitude is one of attenuated grotesqueness. The picture is well known through engravings.

In the main Senate corridor are several fine things : a portrait of Thomas Jefferson, by Thomas Sully; a replica of the famous Athenaeum portrait of Washington, by Gilbert Stuart1 (called the Thomas Chestnut painting) two excellent portraits of John C. Calhoun and Henry Clay, by H. F. Darby; and, over the west stairway, the full-length portrait of Washington, by Charles Willson Peale, referred to amongst the posesssions of the National Gallery.

Of these the most distinguished is the portrait of Henry Clay, by H. F. Darby, which depicts the statesman as he appeared late in life. This splendid portrait is well drawn, lifelike, dignified and strong, with something of the solidity of Couture about it. Clay seems about to speak; he is an old man, care-fully dressed and wears a black neck cloth. His precise air has become fixed.

The portrait of John C. Calhoun also shows Darby to have been a painter of distinction and ability.

Several distinguished portraits may be discovered by an invasion of the various committee rooms. A reserved and dignified portrait of Benjamin West, at an advanced age, painted by himself, hangs in the room of the Senate Committee on Library. It was bought by the government in 1876, for $500. West wears a red coat and a high hat, and holds in his hand the crayon, indicative of his profession, while before him, on the table, lie a sheet of drawing paper and an open knife. He is smooth shaven, about the mouth and chin, with gray hair and light side whiskers. The face looks out from the canvas intently and the eyes are keenly alert; the mouth is firmly closed and reveals, in its narrow lines, determination and character; the hand is most expressive. The painting is dry, the arrangement handsome and dignified, and the light is concentrated upon the right side of the face, throwing the rest of the canvas into a general envelopment, similar to the effects insisted upon by Rembrandt. The canvas ,has quality and a most professional finish.

A portrait of Henry Laurens, by John Singleton Copley (1737-1815) hangs in the room of the Senate Committee on Finance. Though not a convincing Copley, the portrait is a powerful one, depicting the staunch patriot with the steadfast look of man determined to do or die. He is posed against a red curtain. At the upper left hand corner of the canvas is this inscription : ” Hon. Henry Laurens, Pres. of the American Congress. Painted 1781, while in the Tower.” In his left hand the sitter holds a letter upon which is written: ” I have acted the part of a fait(hful) subject; I now go resolved still to labour for peace at the same time determined, in the last event, to stand or fall with my country. I have the honour to be, Henry Laurens.”

The portrait must have been painted in 1780 or 1781; for it was during that time that Laurens was imprisoned in the Tower. The facts of his incarceration were these : In 1779 he was appointed minister to Holland, to negotiate a treaty that had been officially proposed to William Lee by Van Berckel, pensionary of Amsterdam. He sailed on the packet, Mercury, which was captured by the British frigate, Vestal, off Newfoundland. Laurens threw his papers overboard ; but they were recovered, and the object of his mission was disclosed. The refusal of Holland to punish Van Berckel, at the dictation of Lord North’s ministry, was instantly followed by war between Great Britain and that country. Laurens was taken to Lon-don, examined before the privy council, and imprisoned in the Tower, on October 6, 1780, on suspicion of high treason. He was held for nearly fifteen months, and was badly treated; but acted with great courage and nobility. He was ill when thrown into prison; but no medical attendance was provided, and it was more than a year before he was allowed pen and ink to draw a bill of ex-change to provide for himself. But he obtained a pencil and communicated freely with the outside world.

When his son John appeared in Paris, in 1781, to negotiate a loan with France, Laurens was informed that his confinement would be the more rigorous because the young man had openly declared himself an enemy to the king and the country. Laurens was advised to recommend his son to withdraw from his commission, in hope of gaining favour at the British court, but he proudly declared that his son was a man who would never sacrifice honour, even to save his father’s life.

Edmund Burke was his friend, and there were others who showed him attention during his imprisonment. He twice refused offers of pardon conditional upon his accepting service in the British ministry. In the end he was exchanged for Lord Cornwallis, and commissioned by Congress one of the ministers to negotiate peace.

The famous medallion portrait of Washington surrounded by a wreath of oak leaves and inscribed, Patrice Pater, which hangs in the vice-president’s room, was painted by Rembrandt Peale, from sketches of Washington, made by the painter, in his early youth, combined with a study of the Houdon statue and existing portraits of the president. This is claimed to be the original, and was purchased by Congress in 1832, for $2,000. A replica of this portrait belonged to Joseph Harrison, and came into the possession of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in March, 1912, when the estate of Mrs. Harrison was settled, being one of a number of pictures bequeathed, conditionally, by her to the institution.

A companion portrait to this is that of Chief Justice Marshall, by Rembrandt Peale, hanging in the robing room of the Supreme Court. The arrangement is identical with that of the Washington portrait, and the latter is inscribed, Partiae Judiae. This picture was presented, in 1873, by Salmon P. Chase.