Vandenberg and Wagner Portraits Unveiled in “Senatorial Hall of Fame”

UNUM, Autumn 2004.

On September 14, 2004, The Senate Commission on Art unveiled new portraits of Senators Arthur H. Vandenberg of Michigan and Robert F. Wagner of New York. These portraits, which now grace the Senate Reception Room (Room S-213 in the Capitol), mark the latest chapter in the ongoing effort to honor members who have contributed significantly to the Senate and to the country. The new paintings join portraits of five other Senators in constituting what senate Historian Dick Baker has referred to as an informal “Senatorial hall of fame.”

The unveiling of the portraits of Vandenberg, painted by Michael Shane Neal, and Wagner, painted by Steven Polson, is the culmination of years of hard but rewarding work by the Senate Commission on Art, the Office of Senate Curator, and the Senate Historical Office. Work began on November 19, 1999, when Senate Resolution 241 directed the Commission on Art “to recommend to the Senate two outstanding individuals whose paintings shall be placed. . . in the Senate Reception Room.” The resolution limited consideration to senators whose service ended before 1979 and who were no longer living. Senators who served as vice president were excluded because such individuals are honored in the vice presidential bust collection. Finally, first priority was given to Senators who were not already commemorated in the Capitol or the Senate office buildings.

Working with the Senate Historical Office, the Commission on Art identified potential honorees from all eras of Senate history before deciding to focus on the Great Depression and New Deal period. Given this emphasis, the Commission felt that Vandenberg, known for his conversion from isolationism to internationalism and for the role he played in forging a bipartisan foreign policy during the Cold War, and Wagner, whose major legislative accomplishments include the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act, clearly stood out. Senate Historian Baker noted that Washington journalists in the late 1940s routinely referred to both men as “titans” of the Senate “who walked in the footsteps of Clay, Webster, and Calhoun.” On October 19, 2000, the Senate formally approved the commission’s recommendations.

With the two honorees selected, the process of commissioning artists began with creation of an eight-person advisory panel whose members included Senate Historian Baker as well as outside experts such as the late J. Carter Brown, then chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts; Alan Fern, director emeritus of the National Portrait Gallery; and Rusty Powell, director of the National Gallery of Art. Artists were invited to submit portfolios, with special effort made to identify artists from the home states of the honored Senators. Ultimately, the advisory panel reviewed the work of 11 artists, viewing four or five images that were representative of the skills of each artist and similar to the type of portrait being commissioned. Panelists then commented on the samples and rated each artist.

Once the artists were selected, the Curator’s Office provided a wide range of images of Vandenberg and Wagner, usually selecting images to depict the men at the height of their careers. In creating their paintings, the artists faced several challenges. For example, the portraits would be installed in “roundels,” the framed, round, medallion-like spaces left empty in the Reception Room design. Therefore, the artists had to paint with this shape in mind. They also needed to create paintings that fit stylistically with each other and with the other portraits in the room.

When the portraits were completed, photographs were taken of the canvases, which were then cut and used as templates for positioning the portraits in the roundels. The canvases were subsequently cut and installed in the Reception Room shortly before the unveiling. For conversation purposes and to ensure that the canvas and the Reception Room wall do not adversely affect each other, a barrier was applied to the wall and an adhesive to the canvas. To further ease future conservation efforts, the Curator’s Office collected detailed information from each artist about the type of paint used and the colors mixed to achieve particular shades.

The story of the Reception Room portraits actually begins approximately 150 years ago. In 1855, Constantino Brumidi, the Italian artist whose work is featured throughout the Senate wing of the Capitol, prepared the first of his proposed designs for the room. These early proposals included the use of paintings of allegorical figures, historical scenes, and portraits of illustrious men. Pencil sketches from around 1870 document Brumidi’s intentions to include portraits of all the early presidents. Later, an 1871 report from Architect of the Capitol Edward Clark noted that the Reception Room was “being decorated in such a manner as to leave spaces for portraits. It is proposed to fill these with the portraits of men most conspicuous in or legislative history.”

Despite these proposals, it wasn’t until 1955 that the Senate resolved to begin filling the spaces by appointing a five-member Special Committee on the Senate Reception Room to select five outstanding former Senators whose portraits would be placed in the room’s oval spaces. The committee was chaired by John F. Kennedy, then a 38-year-old freshman Senator. On May 1, 1957, the Kennedy committee made its recommendations, selecting Senators Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, Robert M. La Follette, Sr., and Robert A. Taft. The portraits of the “Famous Five” were unveiled on March 12, 1959.

In announcing its selections, the Kennedy committee stated that “perhaps some future committee of the Senate. . . will find occasion to honor additional names.” More than 40 years later, this hope was realized with the selection of Vandenberg and Wagner. With several unfilled spaces of varying types remaining in the Reception Room, the Senate will have further opportunity to recognize significant contributions. As Senate Curator Diane Skvarla points out: “The art in the Capitol reflects the history of our country over the past 300 years, and thus it is important to leave some spaces blank for future generations to complete. We are only here for a short time, but the Capitol will endure and should mirror the important people and achievements that define this nation.”

by Brian McLaughlin