When Michael Shane Neal received the commission from the U.S. Senate Commission on Art to paint Senator Robert C. Byrd, he was presented with an interesting challenge: to depict the Senator 25 years younger when he was serving as Majority Leader. Much akin to a method actor, Neal completely immersed himself into the life of his subject, taking note of his voice, gestures, characteristic poses, and personality. A firm believer in homework, he read everything about the Senator he could find, watched hours of video, and even spoke with Senator Byrd’s staff members, friends, and granddaughter. Neal explains that his aim was to create something unique on the canvas that goes beyond the technical, something he can only accomplish by immersing himself into all aspects of his sitter.
After all of his research, Neal started to get a sense of Senator Byrd as a person and what motivates him as both an individual and a U.S. Senator. As work began on the portrait, it became evident that there was not merely one image from the past that could be immortalized in the portrait, so instead he had several sittings with Senator Byrd, used live models in the studio, referenced numerous photographs and utilized his imagination. Senator Byrd had requested that the three pillars of his life be represented in the portrait: the Bible, the Constitution, and his wife. The latter proved to be a unique artistic challenge, as the Senator wanted the posthumous image of his wife to be both clear and distinct, as well as important part of the painting’s composition.
According to Neal, he had some objectives of his own for the portrait. “When I first met Senator Byrd, I was struck by his posture; his strength, which is apparent even at the advanced age of 90; his formality; [and] his genuine interest in the process… I was interested in portraying a leader, one with an intense gaze, but a gentle spirit; a man who garners respect, but at the same time is respectful of others… a man who is not large in stature, but leaves you with the feeling that he is one of the tallest men in the room.”
Neal also found Senator Byrd to be a man rooted in history, with an oratory style, sense of formality, and manners that all hark back to a different era. In the portrait, the Old Senate chamber coupled with the historic lamps, provide a visual reference to this aspect of the Senator. Likewise, Neal feels the columns provide the pictures with “strength and dignity,” while the rug and curved desk give the viewer the sense of a specific place. The rings on the Senator’s fingers and the Senate lapel pin add a personal touch, as he is rarely seen without them.
It was most fitting that on September 25, 2007 the portrait of Senator Byrd was unveiled in the Old Senate Chamber. At the ceremony, several of Senator Byrd’s colleagues honored him with personal stories and highlighted his achievements. They all commented on his immense knowledge of the democratic process, his drive to defend the U.S. Constitution, and his reverence for the traditions of the Senate. When Senator Byrd’s great-grandchildren joined him fir the unveiling, the audience could quickly see that Neal had successfully captured his essence and spirit on the canvas, sharing with future generations of Americans a glimpse into this historic Senator.
By: Amanda Apostol