Two artists submitted portraits for consideration: Phineas Staunton of New York and William Frye of Alabama. The differences in the two paintings are striking.
Staunton’s portrait humanizes Clay. The painting’s focal point is Clay’s face and his poignant expression. The soulful eyes cast a fateful gaze. Though Clay died in 1852, Staunton’s portrait makes it seem as if Clay had endured the Civil War that his life’s work had sought to avoid. Staunton’s intimate portrayal of Clay can likely be credited to life studies he made of the senator in the 1840s. The artist received praise for capturing the countenance of Henry Clay in his various portraits of the statesman.
William Frye, trained in the European academic style, romanticized Clay as the iconic hero. Posed in a dignified, formal composition, Clay appears timeless and untouched. Though many of the symbolic details, such as books and papers, are similar to those in Staunton’s work, Frye treats them as emblems of Clay’s profession and stature, where Staunton includes them as a “still life” or snapshot of the Senate Chamber floor. Frye based his painting very closely on a memorial lithograph published shortly after Clay’s death in 1852.