For its exceptional quality, this likeness of Henry Clay (1777–1852) deserves an honored place among portraits of American statesmen and politicians. It is startlingly beautiful, embodying the strength of Clay’s character, enhanced by a touch of romantic ardor.
The artist Edward Marchant was born in Edgartown, Massachusetts, December 16, 1806, and died in Asbury Park, New Jersey, August 15, 1887. He painted miniature portraits in watercolor as well as full-scale portraits in oil. William Dunlap, the first historian of American art, noted “several portraits of superior merit” by Marchant and concluded: “Of prepossessing manners and undoubted abilities, [Marchant] must succeed in the profession he has chosen.”1Dunlap, 262. In this canvas, he shows a subtle skill in drawing, composition, and color that supports Dunlap’s judgment.2On August 30, 1890, Congress appropriated $2,500 to purchase this portrait and one of John Quincy Adams (whom Clay served as secretary of state). The Adams portrait is no longer in the Collection. The almost frontal pose is softened by the turn of the head, which is in slight contrapposto with the sloping design of the shirtfront. The clothing is fluidly drawn and provides an elegant pedestal for the splendid head.
Stability combines with animation in the characterization of Clay’s head; the pupils of the intelligent eyes are picked out with strong highlights, the high complexion is vital but not florid, and the compressed lips show a characteristic slight pull toward the left side of his face. Marchant’s tonal skill is evident in the costume and in the masterly transition between figure and background.
This portrait was purchased by Congress from the artist’s widow and daughter on September 29, 1890, and was accompanied by a letter from the daughter, Adeline B. Marchant:
While passing the summer of 1838 in Cincinnati, Mr. Marchant, who was an intense admirer of Mr. Clay, conceived the idea of adding his portrait to a collection he was engaged in making for himself, of the distinguished men of our own country. Accordingly . . . he went to Ashland [Clay’s home, near Lexington, Kentucky], where he was kindly received by Mr. Clay, who at once acceded to his request, & insisted upon his making his home with him during the progress of the picture. After completing the head, &c. which occupied about ten days, he returned to Cincinnati where he finished the drapery. The picture was seen by a number of persons at Mr. Clay’s own house, and was applauded without a dissenting voice, Mrs. Clay actually shedding tears over it. She was anxious to retain it, but Mr. Marchant felt that he must have the original, and offered to make her a copy, but this she refused, saying that it was the best ever painted of him, & she was afraid the copy would not suit her as well.3Secretaries of State 1978, 21.
Many portraits were made of the “great pacificator,” but none is stronger than this.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.
Henry Clay (1777–1852) was born in Hanover County, Virginia. He read law and moved to Kentucky in 1797. An eloquent speaker, he represented Kentucky in the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate for most of the rest of his life. Clay’s appointment as secretary of state was controversial.
Clay had run for the presidency in 1824, but there were multiple candidates and he came in fourth. As there was no clear majority in the electoral college, the top three candidates were to be voted on in the House of Representatives, where Clay held influence as Speaker. Clay lent his support to John Quincy Adams, bypassing Andrew Jackson, who had come in first, and when Adams won the presidency, he immediately named Clay his secretary of state, a position that had often, in the past, led to the presidency. Jackson’s supporters called the arrangement a “corrupt bargain.”
Clay did have diplomatic experience. A decade earlier he had been one of the commissioners in Ghent who negotiated a peaceful conclusion to the War of 1812 with Britain. As secretary, he oversaw the settlement of twelve commercial treaties and developed economic ties with the newly independent Latin American republics. Although he encountered setbacks in disputes with Mexico over Texas—the remote Mexican province where Americans were settling—and with Britain over Oregon, his emphasis on U.S. economic expansion was a forerunner of modern U.S. diplomacy.
After his tenure, Clay returned to the U.S. Senate from 1831 to 1842 and from 1849 to 1852. His fame as “The Great Compromiser” came from his political success in working out settlements in the Missouri Compromise of 1820–21, the Compromise Tariff of 1833, and the Compromise of 1850 that attempted to settle the issue of slavery in the territories.
Henry Clay's American Classical Carved Mahogany Card Table