Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State

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Web Property of the U.S. Department of State


Object Details

Chester Harding (American, 1792-1866)
North American
oil on canvas
Overall: 30 in x 25 in; 76.2 cm x 63.5 cm
John Clark, of Buffalo, New York, by the late 19th century; to his nephew, Bryant B. Glenny, Jr., of Buffalo; to his nephew, the donor, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in the 1950s
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. Davis Dunbar
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number

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Object Essay

After three professionally satisfying years in England (1823–1826), Chester Harding was understandably apprehensive, if realistic, about returning to America: “To return to Boston and receive a cold welcome where I had been so warmly patronized would be a sore wound to my pride and to my ambition. Yet it is but fair to count upon this to some degree.”1Harding, 83. The painter understood, as he told William Dunlap, that his success abroad was owed at least in part to the “circumstances of my being a back woodsman, newly caught. There is no circumstance in the history of an artist, that carries such charm with it as that of being self-taught—while to those competent of judging, it conveys no other virtue with it, other than that of perseverance.”2Dunlap, 65.

Back in the United States, he soon resumed his old life as an itinerant portrait painter. He had established valuable contacts in Washington in the winter of 1821–1822, and, early in 1828, he returned there for the purpose of painting or, as he put it on another occasion, “taking off the heads” of the political figures of the day.3Quoted in Lipton, 29. He moved confidently in the circles of power, and between 1828 and 1830 painted a very large number of portraits in the capital.

John Quincy Adams sat to Harding, as he apparently sat to everyone who asked. Adams had first posed for him in Boston the previous fall, six sittings in September and October. That painting had been finished, but Harding had begun a replica for himself and asked the President for additional sittings.4Ibid., 74–75. The first portrait of Adams, in the Redwood Library, Newport, Rhode Island, differs in some details from the Collection’s painting. Harding told John Quincy Adams in 1828 that he had already “disposed of” the 1827 portrait to the [Boston] Athenaeum; therefore, two copies from 1830 or late of our version demonstrate that it is the replica, which was still in Harding’s possession (ibid., 74). Interestingly, they were held in a studio rented by the sculptor Horatio Greenough in the house of Charles Bird King, who had already painted Adams in 1826.5King painted at least two portraits of Adams from sittings in 1819 and 1820. One of these is now in the Redwood Library and the other in the Department of State’s collection (see Acc. No. 79.34). Cosentino, 122–23, nos. 7 and 8. Greenough wrote to his brother Henry in February, “Harding is here, and . . . I offered to allow him to paint [Adams’s portrait] while I was modeling” him.6Ibid., 47. Adams’s diary for February 20, 1828, substantiates this interesting arrangement.7Oliver, 139.

Adams allowed that this portrait was “a strong likeness.” Certainly his taut, ironic, wary expression suggests that Harding understood his character. The portrait was exhibited at the National Academy of Design the same year it was painted and again in 1831 in Boston, where it was seen by Adams’s son, Charles Francis.8Ibid., 139, 141; Lipton, 75.

William Kloss

Excerpted from Clement E. Conger, et al. Treasures of State: Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U.S. Department of State. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1991.